Beyond lip service: The differences that add up to effective safety

It seems that every company executive, plant manager and supervisor is quick to espouse safety first, but are they? Are you? It's time to identify the differences you can make.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, Editor in Chief

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Asked their priorities, virtually every company president, plant manager and supervisor in Western civilization will quickly proclaim, “Safety first!” You may have billboards at the main gate, bumper stickers on the cars, and posters near the time clock, but is your plant really serious about safety? Is it fostering the most cost-effective culture? Are you doing your part?

Responsibility for safety might formally be assigned to human resources (HR) or a group of safety experts, but effective implementation involves everybody and depends heavily on engineering and maintenance. “Maintenance is key,” says Alex Mims, regional manager, safety and fleet compliance, CMC Steel, Sequin, Texas. “Nothing gets done in a facility that’s not installed and maintained properly. When there’s a safety problem, they have to get to it, do it and communicate the status. If maintenance doesn’t act quickly and openly, operations eventually quits reporting problems.”

Maintenance personnel also are among the most likely to be killed or seriously hurt. Unlike most production workers, they often are alone, doing specialized work in remote areas, Mims says. “They have to be concerned about safety if they want to go home at night.”

Safe returns

If safety was free and easy, everyone would be safe. But building and maintaining a culture in which safety truly comes first takes time, effort and money, and while few North Americans would say so, not everyone is convinced it’s worth it.

“We invented the safety gate, and we see companies that take the attitude, ‘Do I have to install this, or is a chain OK?’ The bean-counter mentality,” says David LaCook, CEO, FabEnCo (www.fabenco.com). “I ask them, ‘Is safety in your core values?’ They say it is, and I say that means you have to do it.”

Some people who push back don’t understand the situation. “A small company might go a long time without a loss and not realize the risk,” says Lanny Floyd, principal consultant, electrical safety and technology, DuPont, Wilmington, Del. “The cost of an accident can ruin a small company, and so can the loss of knowledge and expertise.”

The cost of the injury itself might be dwarfed by lost production. “A fall might kill someone, but the machines still run,” says Joe Weigel, product manager, Square D/Schneider Electric Co. (www.squared-services.com). “An arc flash may or may not kill, but equipment is damaged and shuts down, and product may be damaged or lost.”

Weigel has seen cases where an arc flash with injury cost $8 million to $10 million. “One case cost the insurance company $29 million,” he says. “The workers’ comp rate went through the roof: from $250,000 to $5 million for five years.”

In the United States, the National Safety Council estimates for every $1 spent on safety there is a $3 return. “Productivity improves. Companies find that they can make more parts per day,” says Dan Hornbeck, manager, safety business development, Rockwell Automation (www.ra.rockwell.com).

“Alcoa saw profitability increase several percent,” says John Peabody, vice president, safety integration, Omron STI (www.sti.com). “Employees could focus on the task instead of on safety. Quality goes up, too.”

Accidents also affect insurance rates. As a result of improved safety, Schneider Electric’s North American Operating Division saw its medical incident rate drop 40% in 2006 at its 30 North American manufacturing facilities. This translated to a savings of approximately $2 million, split between workers’ compensation and indirect costs.

“The bean counter looks at the general ledger and sees ‘safety and security expense’ as reducing profits, but you’re saving money,” LaCook says. “We’ve always been very proud of our workman’s comp experience modifier – in the 0.7 to 0.8 range, very good for a small company in metals manufacturing. When you see that discount, compared to others, you have a competitive advantage.”

That edge can extend to costs most people don’t see as safety-related, such as turnover. “Employees leave companies they see as unsafe places to work,” says Travis Rhoden, editor, workforce safety, J.J. Keller (www.jjkeller.com). He suggests you take the same approach to safety that you use to keep a machine running. “Consider the cost of a down employee, and avoid that cost.”

It’s impossible to guarantee investing in safety will prevent all incidents, says Greg Anderson, CEO, Results in Learning (www.resultsinlearning.com), “But I can guarantee that not investing in safety will result in incidents occurring, either on or off the job, because people who work in a culture of safety have that mindset wherever they are.”

Avoiding the cost of a single incident that would have injured or killed can pay for a program. “Financially responsible people are willing to spend the money because they understand the consequences,” Weigel says. “Even if they think it costs too much or they can’t afford it, they have to do it. If someone gets hurt, they have to do it anyway, and they pay both ways.”

It’s a culture thing

The specific regulations, staffing, equipment and training you need to maintain a safe working environment depend on the nature of your operations. The critical element is fostering a mindset that truly gives safety more than lip service – where it naturally comes first in every plan and activity.

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