By Aaron Corvin
It takes commitment to a journey. It involves teamwork and communication on the part of managers and workers. It amounts to building safety into work processes and equipment to better shield workers from harm.
Those and other points were driven home by on-the-job safety leaders in private industry and government during a panel discussion, "Safety Culture Evolution," that was held as part of the March 6-9 Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference.
"Culture isn't something that happens overnight," said Tim Hart, vice president of western operations for Duro-Last Roofing Inc. "Safety is something that, as you progress, it becomes ingrained in you. You look for things that will cause people injury."
Hart joined five others on the panel: Rick Johnson, human resources manager for the Purdy paint brush manufacturing plant in Portland; Stephanie Simpson, a brush-maker at the Purdy facility and key safety leader there; Maria LeMay, environmental, health, and safety engineer for Intel Corp. in Hillsboro; Don Smith, region 5 safety manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation; and David Soloman, employee safety manager for ODOT.
Soloman said people's mindsets influence work practices and, in turn, an organization's culture. If a work practice is unsafe, but someone believes otherwise because it has yet to cause an injury, then it's only a matter of time before injury occurs.
"If you're doing something unsafe," Soloman said, "eventually it's going to come around and bite you."
LeMay spoke of safety as a journey taken in stages.
The first stage – a lack of emphasis on safety – is where you don't want to linger. The next stage is about meeting the minimum legal requirements but falling far short of implementing a safety management system and of focusing on preventing injuries.
The final stage is the journey's prize: Safety is fully integrated into your company's day-to-day operations and stands as a personal value for everyone involved.
The vehicles for getting there are teamwork and communication on the part of managers and workers, LeMay said. Teamwork begins with managers gathering input to understand the in-the-trenches safety concerns of workers. A critical piece of gathering input and sparking a discussion is an employee safety survey, LeMay said. And the last thing you want to do as a manager is let the survey gather dust on a shelf.
"Develop action plans," she said. "You will never get someone to respond to a survey if they think it went into a vortex never to be seen again."
Develop action plans"
Hart said support for safety from the top is essential. That's the philosophy at Duro-Last Roofing's manufacturing plant in Grants Pass, which has achieved Star Site status, the highest achievement for companies participating in Oregon OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program.
"Our company starts every single meeting we have, no matter what we're talking about, with safety," he said. When employees see managers practicing safety, Hart added, then "they're all in."
However, recognizing that safety is a journey and genuinely listening to – and acting on – employees' concerns aren't enough.
You also have to take a hard look at the processes that undergird how work gets done, as well as the equipment people use along the way, panel speakers said.
Take, for instance, the Purdy plant, where workers make paint brushes and tools by hand. Johnson summed up the company's culture this way: "We want employees in better health than when they entered the facility."
To that end, the company launched a program that empowers employees, who face ergonomic challenges, to immediately report physical discomfort to managers to prevent injuries from happening. The company also makes a physical therapist regularly available to employees – not to treat injuries but to avoid them. The company recently phased out old chairs and replaced them with new, ergonomically correct ones. And before every shift, employees stretch and flex for up to 15 minutes.
In 2004, Johnson said, the facility had 23 recordable injuries. "That was scary," he said. Since then, the number has dropped every year. In 2013, the company had no recordable injuries. Recently, the company was recommended for recertification as a VPP Star Site.
Likewise, Hart provided examples of how to build safety into work processes. Duro-Last invented a device that allows a forklift driver to drape a tarp over a load on the back of a truck. The result: Truck drivers don't have to climb a truck to cover a load, and risk falling and hurting themselves.
"They have to know you care," Hart said as he told the story of the invention. "Employees need this."
All of the panelists who spoke agreed that the journey to a culture of safety and health isn't easy and never really ends. But as long as you maintain a mindset of continuous improvement, they said, the journey inevitably fills with successes that keep you moving in the right direction.
"It's dangerous to think we can't do better," Johnson said. "We always know we can do better. It takes everybody."
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