An Expectation of Safety

Create an environment where employees take ownership of their own safety

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Safety should be second nature — most contractors in the industry can agree on that — but often, employees need a nudge to keep safety at the forefront of their daily work.

The best way to ensure that is to create a “safety culture,” which is often easier said than done. One way this culture of safety is developed is to create the expectation that safety will always be ingrained into every facet of the company.

Focus on mentality

Steve Taplin is the owner of Taplin Holdings, which serves many segments of the environmental services industry, including drain cleaning.

The company follows what Taplin calls the ELKS Program, or Eliminating Loss through Knowledge and Stewardship. Developed internally, the method focuses on a behavioral approach to safety.

“The essence of it is to change or complement the behavior of workers, wherein the safe execution of their work is at the core of everything they do,” Taplin says.

Some of the key practical efforts of their program are new employee training, assessment and incident reporting.

Taplin is a big believer in giving his employees the tools to take charge of their own safety. Part of that is giving them the confidence and authority to call out unsafe practices or even stop work completely when necessary.

“We take a great deal of pride in the employees’ ability to utilize stop-work authority if they feel a circumstance is unsafe,” Taplin says. “If they don’t know exactly what to do, or maybe they don’t have the right equipment, they stop.”

The company also endorses both self-evaluation and peer-to-peer evaluation. That, in addition to persistent-loss and near-loss reporting, gives workers a firm grasp of what to do or not do in a variety of situations that may not be covered in standard training.  

“The goal is to be able to communicate those losses and near losses to other people in the company, so they may avoid the same,” Taplin says. “If they encounter a similar circumstance, it’ll be more recognizable.”

An extension of that ongoing knowledge sharing is a job safety analysis that is performed on each new job assignment. Employees are encouraged to take stock of the site, recognizing the risks identified with each task.

Taplin Holdings also employs a vice president of safety, with another safety manager working under him, and they have established unofficial “safety liaisons” within each division to create a network of safety resources spiraling down to each crew.

Establishing procedure

Clog Squad is a drain cleaning company that also manufactures and distributes their own drain cleaning equipment. Company management believes that safety is a process, and it takes great pains to ensure each and every employee takes the appropriate steps to mitigate dangers from biohazards.

An experience with unsafe drain cleaning is what inspired founder and co-owner Ken Beyer to develop the safety-forward drain cleaners and processes that prioritize safety in the company.

“We make sure all of our employees understand how to go into a work environment and neutralize the area that’s been infected by a backed-up sewer,” Beyer says. “We neutralize it with a compound, a chemical, so it isn’t dangerous to the guys who work for us and for the people around them. We put doorknob protectors on doors — we treat it like the biohazard that it is.”

The design of their equipment allows the cable to be rinsed and sanitized as it is removed from the pipe. Such considerations encourage safe procedures by making it easy for operators, and the equipment cleaning becomes incorporated into typical operation.

“We have a training manual, and then we go over it in a classroom. We ride with them, and then we occasionally ride with them again to make sure they’re doing it, plus we follow up with phone calls to our customers, to make sure the area is left cleaner than when they arrived,” Beyer says. “We really go beyond the norm of what other companies do.”

Any safety culture needs a strong motivator for employees to embrace safety procedures.

“We give them about three strikes, and then we ask them to go someplace else,” Beyer says. “The reward is getting a paycheck at the end of the week.”

Their safety procedure includes using doorknob protectors, neutralizing agents for bacteria and odors, and water blockers to isolate spills.

“I think the industry is cleaning up its act. Our primary goal is to take the dirty out of the dirtiest jobs. We have a problem with new recruits not wanting to get into drain cleaning. Our job is to clean up that image, by being cleaner,” Beyer says. “We try to get rid of the belief everybody has that this is a dirty job. The methods that we use really clean up the image of it because it isn’t as dirty as what they expect it to be.”

An evolving field

Beyond the obvious benefits of cost savings on workers’ compensation and lost time, a strong culture of safety can increase your business’ standing in the eyes of consumers.

“We always say our best competition is somebody else being there before us, because we actually leave the place cleaner than we found it,” Beyer says. “When I first started plumbing, the old drain cleaners looked at anybody wearing a pair of gloves as a sissy. We want to make sure our guys stay healthy — it’s an evolution, and companies are starting to understand that.”

Some companies will offer incentives for employees who demonstrate a commitment to safety, but Beyer and Taplin believe treating safety as an expectation is the best way to promote it.

“The reward for safe work is going home with all your pieces and parts to see your family,” Taplin says. “Every employee is accountable for his or her own safety and the safety of their co-workers.”


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