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How to change workplace culture and make safety an internally driven principle

Dec. 17, 2013
Large and small companies alike can facilitate culture change.

In my worldwide travels I often speak with HSE and maintenance supervisors on the challenges of changing the safety culture. The problems they encounter include not just ensuring effective training outcomes, but appropriate work practice modifications that produce lasting and recognizable change. The problems are identical, independent of the size of the companies encountered. Very large companies that have the budget to support a robust HSE infrastructure with teams of highly educated and trained personnel struggle with the same angst that smaller ones do, where the HSE duties are thrown on an already overworked company technical expert. One obvious difference is that larger companies are more aware of the predicament due to internal processes designed to uncover such maladies. Smaller companies tend to run blindly, looking only at loss-time incident rates or blatant safety violations. Both have shared their frustrated struggle to answer the same question: “How do we change the workplace culture to become more internally driven and away from temporary safety compliance as a result of some focus of the moment?”

The answer lies in a quotation I remember hearing from my grandfather. A saying as relevant today as it was in his. I was in my pre-teens and he in his early 70s when I first remember him sharing this homegrown country wisdom. The time was the early 1960s and the world was in turmoil with great societal change. He used to raise horses, although by this time in his life that activity had long ago ceased. They were called Tennessee walkers — a breed, he would relate through a gleam in his eye, known for prancing and trotting with magnificent grace. The Tennessee walker would move, in his words, “like a finely choreographed dancer.” My favorite picture was of him atop a prized steed in full posture and show. He would share the lessons he learned while training these animals and how they applied to human issues throughout all his life. I’m not in any way relating skilled and trained workers to an unruly horse, yet there are similarities. They both have a desire to run free and resist outside guidance. Perhaps that was the context that fateful day in which he shared such a gem of his experience with this his youngest of three grandsons. He saw in me a bit of the unruly that needed to be tamed. I saw only my ability to perform any work he assigned.

“There are many that say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink,” was how it began. “But those folks really don’t know horses. If you salt down their oats, they’ll drink all the water they can find.” And there it was — an idea so simple I wondered how it is so easily missed. Change must come from within.

So how does this relate to affecting a change in the entrenched culture these supervisors so desperately want to impact? Much effort and budget is spent on ensuring the workers have received the right amount of technical training before work assignments are made. We want workers to be confident and effective when completing those assigned tasks. We want them to be like my grandfather’s horses, developed and identified for the intended task, a skilled world-class workforce of which they can be proud. But the goal has to be more than just task performance. It must be tasks performed safely, which is consistently repeated time and again.

Start with ensuring all workers have the technical information, training, tools, and equipment to complete the desired work task. Safe work performance is preceded by good technical competence. Large companies lean toward providing this training regardless of worker experience, license, or past performance. Smaller companies tend to assume workers are technically competent, relying on licensing or past certifications. Documented means must be put in place to establish this level of competency and react with appropriate training as needed.

Establish the expectations under which work is to be performed. Safe work practices apply to all work, not just work within an employee’s area of expertise. Processes must be put in place to assess demonstrated skill proficiencies while work is in progress. Many large companies use a strategy called “Stop Work Authority” or SWA. All workers, regardless of their crafts, have the right and responsibility to observe all work within their immediate vicinity. When any work is seen that just doesn’t look right to them based on past experiences, they should engage those workers in a friendly conversation about what was seen. Done at this field level in a non-threatening way, it instills a common thread among all crafts that “safety first” is not just a saying but also an expected culture.

Accidents affect everyone, even those not directly involved. Smaller companies, likely due to the fact they are more insulated from other work and workers, tend to be more protective of their work sites and defensive of this SWA strategy. Larger companies are often divided into smaller work groups by craft or profession where this same protectionist attitude can emerge. Clear expectations, with the appropriate budget to implement, that safety is everyone’s responsibility is required for this to be a success. The perceived cost to implement is likely the reason many large companies are receptive to embrace SWA where smaller ones do not. Recognizing that doing work safely, doing it right the first time, is less costly overall and brings the challenge of implementing a strategy of SWA into a balanced view.

Robert S. LeRoy is an electrical safety and compliance consultant. Contact him at [email protected] or 863-944-3369.

Mirror the results so that they will be duplicated. Reward programs often attached to safety initiatives produce only temporary changes at best. These programs do have their places in recognizing excellence, but, when scaled back due to economics or a new company focus, the lasting desired effects are not realized. Incident rates or near misses often increase until a new initiative is devised and implemented. And on the cycle goes. Blood-and-guts training videos, although abundantly available in today’s technology-driven age, have limited effect unless the personal story of pain and suffering is attached. Bringing in a worker who has experienced an injury to speak at a company gathering can have a more lasting result. As time moves on the memory of that speaker fades and the worker’s old habits once again emerge. Consider alternating with stories from more experienced workers or retirees who have not experienced a major incident or injury in their careers. Let them tell their stories of what reminded them to work safely. What were the things in their lives that raised the alarm when the emergency of the moment threatened to override the urgency of their safety? The common theme of family and loved ones will quickly rise to the top. Establish and then enforce again both verbally and with action that getting a job done more quickly is not acceptable if any safety process is violated. It is in this area that many smaller companies often have the edge. Closer working relationships foster a watchful eye as workers show an increased awareness for one another. Consider ways to build strong relationships among work groups and their peers. And don’t forget management in this equation.

Expect the process to be slow and arduous. Measure results along the way and adjust your tactics as required. Lasting change only comes from within. As supervisors and managers, finding the right kind of salt is the challenge. Be creative and positive in your efforts. The results will produce lasting change that is internally driven and infectious.

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