Meeting Expectations of Safety

A commitment to safety requires actively seeking employee involvement, and it starts from the top down

Meeting Expectations of Safety

The key to having meaningful and productive safety meetings is giving employees the opportunity to speak their minds, share experience and express concerns. 

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There are many workplace safety mantras, such as “safety is a habit” and “safety is everyone’s business.” While there is truth in the maxims, they nevertheless are just words — and cheap, as they say. Danger arises when the words become substitutes for the work of actively teaching safety and monitoring a workplace for unsafe situations.

It’s the job of safety managers to move a company beyond just talking about safety — and that job is a tough one. A safety manager’s very worth to a company ultimately is measured by how many accidents or injuries do not happen on his or her watch.  

Safety personnel may have different approaches to their work, but all seem to agree that the most insidious cause of unsafe behavior is routine, and how important it is for everyone to be committed to returning home unharmed at the end of a workday.

Start from the top

“I’m the safety manager,” says Chris Ravenscroft of Koberlein Environmental. What’s interesting about that is Ravenscroft is also president and owner of the diversified wastewater services firm in Pennsylvania with commercial, residential, industrial and municipal clients. Considering all the responsibilities that come with ownership and administration of a burgeoning company, delegating employee safety to a subordinate certainly could be justified.

But Ravenscroft’s decision to be directly involved in the company’s safety program reflects his fundamental belief that the integrity of the program determines its success. “I really do think that it all has to do with credibility,” he says. “Management and ownership have to show their genuine interest in what employees have to say.

“Employees come to the monthly safety committee meetings with their own ideas and concerns and we have an open forum. Their active participation starts with the belief that we’re having a meaningful discussion. They have to see that we really are concerned about their safety.”

Daily operations of the company occasionally interfere with assembling a safety committee quorum. For the meeting to occur, at least four committee members besides management representatives are required to be present. That requirement alone serves to validate the meeting in the eyes of employees. They can see their presence at the meeting truly is valued.

The meetings are not allowed to drone on either, Ravenscroft says. “Realistically, we try to keep them as short as possible and as long as necessary. That means usually about 45 minutes. After that much time, everyone’s attention starts to wander. There are diminishing returns after 45 minutes.”

While each meeting has an agenda, urgent topics are raised as determined by circumstances, he says, including accidents. The company has gone several years without a lost-time accident, but incidents do happen from time to time. “Whenever an accident does occur or a near miss of an accident, it definitely focuses people. Such incidents go to the top of our agenda.”

He adds that sometimes committee members respond to an incident “sooner than the next month’s regularly scheduled meeting. We sometimes call a special meeting or decide to act on something immediately and follow up at the next meeting. These meetings are not window dressing. The safety committee is not a token or a gesture.”

One indicator that management means business in stressing safety is how readily it will pay for it. Ravenscroft says: “There has to be a willingness to consider real solutions based on employee input. Sometimes this includes spending money. There has to be a willingness to make the investment for safety.”

Safety is a culture

As safety manager of North American Pipeline Services (NAP), John Flanagan brings to the table hands-on experience keeping workers safe: He spent years in the oil refinery industry where, he says, “safety is huge.” Leading a refinery crew of 40 workmen, Flanagan each day stressed to employees the necessity of working safely and looking out for one another.

“It was easy to do that then because everyone met in the construction trailer every morning. Here, everyone is scattered to different workplaces,” he says. The scattering comes from NAP being a full-service underground utility rehab and repair contractor serving customers in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

A year ago, safety became Flanagan’s sole focus after Tom Mullen, NAP owner, hired him to enhance the company’s environment. Flanagan says the new program is a work in progress. “Tom asked me to enhance the company’s safety culture while he continues to grow the company. Safety is a culture. We’re still developing it.”

Flanagan’s first undertaking was to develop a health and safety manual. “It tells employees what they can expect the company to do for them and what the company expects of them to help protect themselves and each other.”

Flanagan also began to hold monthly safety meetings with individual groups of employees. Topics include hand safety, eye protection, the dangers of hydrogen sulfide gas in manholes and confined-space entry procedures. Eventually, that gathering of employees will become a monthly safety committee meeting with a representative from each division of the company.

He recently held a “refresher” meeting: a classroom gathering he convenes every six months for half of the employees. The other half has their next scheduled safety awareness refresher a few months later. “It’s an eight-hour course,” Flanagan says. “I’m not teaching it. I call in a certified trainer to lead a discussion on a safety topic for one whole day.”

While topics are thoughtfully chosen, sometimes they are dictated by what’s in the news — such as a workplace accident. One example: A confined-space incident in a neighboring state where hydrogen sulfide gas killed a worker and two would-be rescuers. The tragedy captured everyone’s attention and became a springboard for discussion.

“There always is something happening somewhere, some sort of accident,” Flanagan says. “And the biggest reason for accidents is the repetitiveness of every job. The danger is complacency. That’s what we have to guard against. Don’t take safety for granted. Every day. That’s what I tell employees. All accidents are preventable.”

Involve everyone

Kyle Irwin got into the safety business the old-fashioned entrepreneurial way: As president of an employment company, he witnessed a less-than-satisfactory safety management performance at a job site in 2009 and believed he could do a better job of it. So, he started his own firm, Irwin’s Safety. Today, the Calgary, Alberta, enterprise operates from eight offices scattered throughout the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

The 39-year-old founder leads a program that teaches safety online, on site and in instructor-led classrooms with simulated workplace environments. In respect to meeting length and frequency, Irwin counsels company safety specialists to hold 20-minute meetings if they are scheduled weekly and to limit monthly meetings to an hour or less.

“Weekly meetings are especially valuable if employees are involved in an ongoing project because things can happen on a weekly basis, particularly if multiple subcontractors are employed,” he says. “But if you are routinely operating … a monthly thing is OK.”

He says safety committees should be comprised of labor, supervisory and management personnel. In every case, a meeting’s agenda should include an “old business” section to ensure that safety recommendations actually were implemented after a prior meeting. “You need to make sure you resolve any questions employees have. If you put a safety practice in place and it’s not enforced, employees come to believe you are just doing it for paperwork. They don’t believe you actually care.”

Irwin also believes in teaching from shared experience, that is, periodically having “safety moments” keyed to a workplace incident somewhere. “It can be a good thing to mention in a meeting that, not too far away at another company, an employee was, for example, working in a confined space and died from heat stroke. Make the example as relevant as possible.” 

The universality of such a workplace episode is the lesson there: A reminder that working routine can be deadly. “For people who are pretty confident in their performance of a job, this is a way to remind them to take a step back every single time they start to work. It’s a way to tell them that just because they’ve been doing a job for a long time doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take a step back daily and make sure they are proceeding safely. A safety moment in a meeting can help them do that.”

The key to having lively and meaningful safety meetings, Irwin says, is management giving employees the opportunity to tell what’s on their minds. “Provide feedback opportunities,” he says. “People like to talk. They like to feel that they are making a difference. Create that open and welcoming environment and you will get employee engagement big time.” 


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