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September 24, 2015

Here’s how to improve environmental health and safety

  • Don’t blame an employee for an unsafe behavior; instead look at the factors behind the act.
    Terracon Consultants


    Proactive organizations recognize that adopting a “systems approach” to their environmental, health and safety (EHS) management creates a stronger, more sustainable platform for success.

    A systems approach promotes the view that a company is not just the sum of individual functions (finance, manufacturing, human resources, etc.) but rather a complex dynamic set of relationships between these functions. Performance and productivity on the manufacturing floor directly affects financial health; in turn, the hiring, retention and employee development practices of the organization directly impact the productivity and quality of its operations.

    All functions are related and impact one other in many ways.

    Systems thinking also acknowledges this dynamic context between employees — the organizational chart only depicts a portion of the relationships and networks that exist in any organization. Spreading critical information and engaging employees in EHS initiatives is as much about tapping into the informal networks, perhaps even more than the traditional cascade-it-down-the-org chart approach we default to.

    For example, consider the failure of an employee to secure the lid on a drum of liquid hazardous waste on the manufacturing floor. The very next morning, an environmental regulator makes a surprise visit and cites the company for this violation. Our standard default is the blame game — we hold the individual employee accountable.

    Contrast this with a systems view that takes a more objective, holistic view. How long has the employee been responsible for this activity? Did the supervisor adequately train this employee? How committed is the company to proper environmental management and is the employee aware of this commitment? What types of behaviors do the employee’s peers engage in (would another employee have placed the lid on the drum, given the same circumstance)? Were any safeguards in place to help this employee (or any other) take the right action, such as a visual reminder to secure the drum?

    In this example, a simple drum lid can create an opportunity for a deep and broad-reaching exploration that would lead to a more successful solution.

    Space industry inspiration

    This way of thinking and ultimately behaving is the core concept of environmental management systems, which have been implemented in organizations across the globe for several decades.

    An exciting opportunity in our industry is the advent of safety management systems (SMS). After successful adoption in the defense and space industries, SMS is now making its way into the mainstream. For instance, the Federal Transit Administration recently adopted SMS as the basis for its new National Public Transportation Safety Program.

    The three basic pillars of SMS are:

    • A comprehensive corporate approach to safety that includes management’s ongoing and explicit commitment to safety

    • An effective organizational structure and safety processes

    • A system for collecting, analyzing and acting on safety performance data

    In addition to these pillars and what really differentiates SMS from traditional safety management approaches is the emphasis on employee engagement and safety culture.

    In a healthy safety culture, employees at all levels feel empowered to report safety concerns, knowing that these concerns will be proactively addressed without fear of retribution. Employees also feel ownership in the safety metrics of the organization, knowing that their behaviors have a direct impact on accident and injury rates, workers’ compensation costs and other important performance measures.

    True to the systems approach, strengthening the management of safety in an organization, if done well, will enhance the bottom line.

    When Paul O’Neil took the helm of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) in 1987, he announced a single-minded focus on safety that intended to make Alcoa the safest company in the country. During O’Neil’s 13-year tenure as CEO, Alcoa’s annual net income increased five-fold and its market capitalization rose by $27 billion. At the same time, the injury rate at Alcoa fell to 1/20th of the U.S. average and some plants would go years without an employee losing a workday due to an accident.

    A fascinating exploration of Alcoa’s safety journey under O’Neil is provided in “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

    A tempting 30-pound box

    In summary, let’s go back to the plant floor and observe a potential safety incident in an organization that has adopted an SMS approach.

    Consider something as simple as retrieving a 30-pound box from an elevated storage rack. An employee has been asked to retrieve this box to fill an urgent customer order; the box is sitting on a wooden pallet at a height of 10 feet. The forklift operator who would normally retrieve the pallet and box is occupied on another order at the opposite end of the plant.

    An extension ladder lies against a nearby wall.

    Earlier this week, the employee attended an all-hands briefing with the plant manager who started the meeting with an acknowledgment of the safety accomplishments of the previous month. In an upbeat, positive manner, he identified and personally thanked several workers on their near-miss reporting efforts.

    Several months ago, this employee also participated in a ladder safety workshop that was designed and taught by shop floor employees, and supported by the plant safety staff.

    The employee is well informed on the current standing of company safety measures and how the success of these measures impacts the company’s financial performance. Last but certainly not least, the employee enjoys and takes pride working in the organization, and can’t imagine missing an extended amount of time due to an injury.

    What choice do you think the employee makes?

    Rob Ziegler is a senior organizational development consultant with Terracon Consultants. He has more than 25 years of experience in environmental, health and safety consulting, with an emphasis on environmental management and safety culture.

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