Industrial Safety

Build a strong safety culture or pay the price

Learn how Kimberly-Clark transformed safety into an all-employee responsibility.

By Mike Tuck, Kimberly-Clark Professional

In brief:

  • Despite the proven value of a safe workplace, traditional approaches assume a siloed safety department.
  • Progressive facilities that view safety as a corporate value rather than a corporate responsibility can transform employee morale and even the business’ profitability.
  • It is important to look at safety through a different lens, transforming it from a compartmentalized function to an all-employee responsibility that permeates the entire plant.

Poor safety practices can lead to increased injuries, high workers’ compensation costs and insurance rates, and even significant fines. However, progressive facilities that view safety as a corporate value rather than a corporate responsibility can transform employee morale and even the business’ profitability. For instance, a 2012 study co-authored by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Toffel, Professor David Levine of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and Boston University doctoral student Matthew Johnson, examined workplace safety inspections conducted by California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). The study found injury claims were reduced by 9.4% and 26% was saved on workers' compensation costs in the four years following inspections at workplaces in high-hazard industries in California, compared to a similar set of uninspected workplaces. The study was published in the May 18, 2012, edition of Science.

Figure 1. When implemented properly, safety programs can actually support bottom-line outcomes.
Figure 1. When implemented properly, safety programs can actually support bottom-line outcomes.

While some companies look at safety as an obstacle to business success, when implemented properly, Kimberly-Clark has found it can actually support bottom-line outcomes (Figure 1).

Despite the proven value of a safe workplace, traditional approaches assume a siloed safety department. The safety team has the sole responsibility to mitigate the risks by taking on the many tasks required to do the job, from training and documenting to counseling, policing, and auditing.

Often, this can make the safety team feel like “compliance cops,” unempowered and overwhelmed by the workload, in some cases leading to confrontational relationships between the team and the employees. Worst of all, the actual safety performance of a facility can find an equilibrium that everyone begins to believe is the best that can be achieved at the site. Therefore, facilities that do not continuously strive for safety excellence can fail to protect employees.

It is important to look at safety through a different lens, transforming it from a compartmentalized function to an all-employee responsibility that permeates the entire plant. This can help to maximize a facility’s overall safety.

Protecting manufacturing workers is a particularly important issue, as this is the only industry sector to experience a recent increase in injuries. Notably, 4.4 manufacturing workers out of 100 experienced an on-the-job injury or illness, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This number is simply too high, particularly when many injuries are due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) use. For example, the BLS estimates 90% of eye injuries could have been prevented with proper use of protective eyewear. In plants today, a new safety approach involving all employees is needed to address these industry challenges. To build a safety culture that protects valued and highly trained employees, it’s critical to implement best practices.

Committed and inspired leadership

The leaders of an organization establish the company’s safety culture. Unless they have full buy-in, systematic safety changes cannot occur. To embrace safety, leaders must view it as a core value, rather than simply a priority that changes over time. It must be part of a company’s consistent and permanent belief system. A safety commitment can be manifested in many ways.

By extending the safety team to floor employees, there is increased bandwidth to address hazards efficiently.

Clearly defined goals: Traditionally, some workplaces hold the prevailing attitude that accidents happen and are simply an inherent part of the manufacturing industry. However, it’s critical to believe an injury-free workplace is possible and be unwilling to accept injuries. Goals should be ambitious but clear-cut. One approach is to identify the safest area or plant in the organization and set a goal for the entire facility to benchmark successful protocols. Likewise, safe workplace practices should be part of every employee’s review, to demonstrate its importance and the need for accountability across the organization.

Open and highly visible communication: It’s critical to regularly speak about and drive safety messaging with employees. To ensure safety is highly valued at each facility, different employees should lead safety topic discussions at the beginning of recurring facility meetings. This will keep employees engaged and responsible for their own safety. Leadership can then also share production results or other safety goals.

{pb}

Some plants don’t take the time to explain why they initiate certain safety practices. For instance, they send an e-blast to staff about a new rule to follow, via a top-down approach. Instead, leaders should take an active role working with employees to identify safety hazards. Engaged leadership helps inspire all workers to commit to safety. By being visible on the shop floor, the safety team can have in-person discussions with staff about any changes in protocol. This kind of interaction also gives the team an opportunity to gather feedback in other areas of concern and fine tune any recent changes, to ensure they are optimal.

Positive reinforcement of the right behavior: For some facilities, it’s only unsafe behavior that gets recognized. It’s critical for plant leaders to reinforce the right behaviors such as identifying hazards for resolution. This signals and inspires safety values and helps shape the culture. When used properly, incenting positive actions can be effective.

Holistic commitment to health and safety: While equipment investments are critical, it’s also important to directly invest in employees’ overall health and well-being. Establishing ergonomic conditioning programs or promoting proper hand and surface hygiene can demonstrates leadership’s commitment to the workforce.

For leaders, it’s important to help employees feel emotionally invested in their safety. At Kimberly-Clark, we’ve developed the “Who’s Counting on You?” program to instill how employees’ families are depending on them to protect themselves at work. Workers are encouraged to post pictures of their families and loved ones in their work area as a constant reminder of why it is important to work safely.

Engaged and empowered employees

When leaders build a safety culture where employees participate fully, a shared accountability emerges. Because employees can handle some tasks traditionally performed by the safety team, they can also look ahead to new initiatives that could help the company’s safety performance. This approach can lead to a boost in employee morale and even strong business results. It is a win-win for everyone.

It’s also important that employee engagement is expected as a permanent part of the plant’s culture. At Kimberly-Clark, our employees commit to Three Safety Obligations:

  • You are obligated to refuse to take any action you consider unsafe.
  • You are obligated to confront anyone performing an unsafe act. 
  • You are obligated to stop doing what you are doing if confronted by someone for performing an unsafe act and resolve the concern.
Figure 2. As other employees see their co-workers’ increased focus on safety and as the plant workforce reaps the benefits of the team’s initiatives, more people will want to participate.
Figure 2. As other employees see their co-workers’ increased focus on safety and as the plant workforce reaps the benefits of the team’s initiatives, more people will want to participate.

For plants without strong employee engagement, it’s important to first identify the safety enthusiasts or early adopters who can serve as initial advocates for a new culture. An extended safety leadership team can signal plant leaders’ strong commitment to protecting their employees. As other employees see their co-workers’ increased focus on safety and as the plant workforce reaps the benefits of the team’s initiatives, more people will want to participate (Figure 2).

By involving employees, plants can move away from traditional approaches where safety managers and plant leadership alone solve the facility’s top hazards. Progressive facilities recognize that floor workers deal with the safety issues on a daily basis and are best equipped to identify how to manage the problems or even eliminate the hazards altogether. In this way, employees can partner with the safety team and leadership to recommend resolutions. When plant leaders unleash the power of their people, strong safety results can occur.

Relentless risk reduction

In some facilities, safety teams can identify a long list of hazards, but the ability to prioritize and address them hinders the development of a superior safety culture. By extending the safety team to floor employees, there is increased bandwidth to address hazards efficiently.

The key to encouraging change is to show ongoing progress in reducing risks. If employees do not see hazards being addressed, they will assume the effort to identify them is a waste of time. Employees may even view management as not committed to safety because the right examples are not being set.

First, it’s important to identify a simple scoring system that makes prioritization easy, ensuring that the most significant hazards are addressed first. A single system for managing and documenting the status of hazards, including assigned accountability for follow up and target completion dates, is critical.

{pb}
Figure 3. Protect workers from machines, whether through guarding, floor redesign, or process reengineering.
Figure 3. Protect workers from machines, whether through guarding, floor redesign, or process reengineering.

Another key priority is to protect workers from machines, whether through guarding, floor redesign, or process reengineering (Figure 3). Exceptional housekeeping is also fundamental to a safe workplace, to help ensure the environment does not contain trip hazards or other unexpected risks.

PPE should serve as the last line of defense. The principled use of PPE demonstrates a symbolic value to companies, signaling the organization’s strong commitment to employee safety. Where PPE use is expected, it can never be optional. In plants with a strong safety culture, employees feel accountable to remind their coworkers to wear proper protections, and to do so themselves.

Systematic management

To enhance plant safety, a strongly disciplined approach with regular checkpoints is beneficial. This can include weekly housekeeping assessments, monthly safety training, and frequent safety audits. Cross-department inspections can also help.

Many plants leverage visual management systems, which transparently show the safety program’s key goals and metrics. By putting such giant boards in common areas such as the cafeteria, it can motivate everyone to achieve safety milestones and goals. Each employee feels accountable for taking a proactive approach to addressing the goals.

Developing a rigorous system with strict performance standards also builds accountability. Data collection and systems for managing it are critical, so all employees understand their safety performance. To maximize participation, everyone must have easy access to such a system.

The full potential of a strong safety culture

Mike Tuck is safe workplace leader for North America at Kimberly-Clark Professional. Contact him at mtuck@kcc.com.

Manufacturers are experiencing many business challenges, such as a difficult economic climate, skilled worker shortages, and an aging workforce. Every worker’s contribution is critical. With a strong company culture, workplace safety can help to maximize the performance of the production line staff, such as by lowering absenteeism.

At Kimberly-Clark, we believe that people are a company’s most important asset. They are the real engines of progress creating, building, and delivering great products and services that make the world move forward. When plant leaders engage employees in their own safety, it can help them reach their fullest potential.

If workers are passionate about safety, it can serve as a catalyst for protecting everything about the company, including coworkers, product quality, and the overall work environment. By demonstrating the importance of their people, a plant’s leaders can inspire employees to attain the business’ goals. Not only are costs minimized, but it can support business productivity and profitability, as well.