Change Safety from a Program to a Core Value

Oct. 1, 2005
BY DENNIS SOWARDS AND MIKE MCCULLION To most contractors, including those in the sheet metal industry, safety is a constant challenge similar to other


To most contractors, including those in the sheet metal industry, safety is a constant challenge similar to other aspects of running a successful business. However, there's a big difference in how a company thinks and behaves when safety is a value as opposed to a program or a customer requirement. A company that has safety as a core value has a safety culture. This means that safety has become a way of life.

Developing and implementing a safety culture versus a simple safety program includes changing the way safety is viewed within the organization. Check out Table 1 for some of the differences between safety as a requirement or program, and safety as a value or culture.

A safety culture often includes:

  • Demonstrated management engagement (this means YOU)
  • A team approach from employees and management
  • Higher safety goals, such as no lost work time
  • Family involvement through a focus on off-the-job safety and health
  • Ongoing safety education and training
  • Careful planning, both pre-project and pre-task
  • Regular evaluation of safety activities, and individual or departmental recognition/reward
  • Accident/incident investigations to seek prevention solutions
  • A zero tolerance program for safety violations that includes drug and alcohol testing.

It Starts With Management
Establishing a safety culture is no easy task. Under-standing what people believe, what they assume to be true, and what they value is a part of developing a safety culture. It's also a part of engaging leadership at various critical levels throughout the organization.

Senior management is engaged in safety when they include it as part of the company's mission statement, when it's listed as one of the company's core values, and when it's measured as one of the company's critical success factors. Senior management communicates how they value safety when they list it first on their agendas, talk about it every chance they get, include it in their performance incentive systems, and "walk the walk" themselves by setting a good example. Senior management's involvement is critical, as it sets the expectations for how all levels of management are to behave.

The age-old saying that "safety is everyone's responsibility" actually becomes a reality when safety is a value of the company. Teamwork is needed to have a safe culture. Management can demonstrate this teamwork by working with the employees to learn how to be safe and to constantly implement safer methods and processes.

In addition, a company that values safety doesn't stop with the employees, but involves all family members. Offthe-job safety, health, and wellness training can go a long way in demonstrating management's concern for employ-ees, and getting employees to buy-in to the culture.

When safety is a value, education and training aren't just for new employees. Contractors who have a safety culture provide on-going education and training to all employees. While almost all contractors do "tool box training" for field and shop employees, companies with a safety culture include office and staff personnel on regular safety training sessions.

Planning and Execution
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, "A plan is nothing, but planning is everything." Companies with a safety culture plan for safety every day, week, month, and year. Before any project is started, they do safety pre-project planning. Also, pre-task planning is done religiously to ensure that safety is part of the way we will do the work each day.

W. Edwards Deming, the noted quality leader, taught the basic steps for continuous improvement: Plan>Do>Check>Act (PDCA). For safety to be an integral part of a company's culture, plans to implement safe programs must be in place. And, of course, plans have no usefulness if not implemented.

Beyond implementation, at a company with a safety culture, management also evaluates (checks to see if the plan worked) and then acts, based on what is learned from the evaluation. Management constantly reviews the leading and lagging safety indicators to see where special emphasis may be needed.

When a new safety program is implemented, it's management's responsibility to share the results across the company, recognize safe acts, and reward excellent safety performance. Consider team incentives: poor safety means no bonus money. Yes, it can be that straightforward and still be very effective.

Prevention vs. Blame
Accidents/incidents happen in every company. When they do occur, most contractors go through a serious investigation of how it happened and often point fingers at who's at fault. When accidents/incidents happen in a company with safety as a value, they're also investigated. But blame is not the issue; the goal is to look for root causes and take actions to prevent any future events.

One way to prevent accidents is a zero tolerance approach for safety violations. At one major sheet metal/ mechanical contracting firm, any employee caught working in an unsafe manner gets a pointed discussion about what could have happened to them if they had an accident, then is sent home for the day to think about it. He or she isn't eligible for any overtime the rest of that week. A second time the same worker violates a safety policy, the result is a two-week suspension. A third strike on the employee and he or she is "out the door."

With a safety culture, drug and alcohol testing is done when an employee starts working for the company, randomly throughout the year, and any time there is an accident. Testing includes management as well as front line employees. There's no room for partiality.

Does having safety as a value really pay off? To companies that value safety, this is a silly question. It pays in avoiding the cost of accidents, and the related cost of lost productivity. It pays off in a lower EMR (experience modification rate) from the insurance company and, therefore, lower workers comp costs. It pays off when customers recognize the contractor's safety efforts and qualify the company for more contracts. But it pays off most when each employee goes home safe each night.

Safety is a set of policies, procedures, and reports Safety is included in the company's mission and strategic plans
Safety activities are done for compliance Safety is first, last, and always about people, including the employee's family
Senior management is committed to safety (Do as I say) Senior management lives safety and is passionate about it (Do as I do)
The company has two plans: the safety plan and the strategic/business plan Safety is first on every agenda in every meeting
Accidents are seen as something that happens as a part of life Accidents are viewed as preventable
Safety is a target or has an acceptable level based on an OSHA recordable rate Zero accidents is the only target (setting any higher target actually condones a certain number of accidents.)
Safety is measured by lagging indicators — after the fact measures Leading indicators (preventive measures) are the key safety measures
Improving safety may be seen as an economic benefit There is a heavy commitment to ongoing safety education and training and support staff
Safety is a business risk and a cost Safety is an investment
Safety is an issue to be negotiated Safety is first among equals (safety, quality, and productivity)

From The Trenches: A Safety Commitment Pays Off

Keith Wilson

How does a 34-year veteran of the sheet metal industry keep 200 employ-ees at a $30 million mechanical contracting firm working safely?
Keith Wilson, CEO of Miller Bonded Inc., Albuquerque, NM, and the 2005-2006 president of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association, Inc., (SMACNA) started working in a sheet metal shop in June 1971 at — as he describes it — the "lowest possible entry level": part-time helper to the maintenance person.

It's safe to say that Wilson has seen a lot during his rise to CEO, and he has a few lessons to share from his company, which puts out about 2 million pounds of sheet metal products per year. He says that his company's true safety culture has really only taken root in the last several years.

"When I worked in the field and the shop, we didn't have many accidents, but in retrospect it really seems like that was more by luck than by design," he admits. "Even as recently as 10 years ago we considered ourselves to be quite safety-minded, but I'd have to say that, to some degree, we were kidding ourselves."

What changed? First and foremost, management's commitment to creating a safety culture.
"We decided we needed to take safety seriously from bottom to top, top to bottom, and side to side, at all levels," Wilson explains. "Upper management really needs to 'walk the walk.' If upper management waivers at all, other levels of the company definitely will, too."

One of the first steps was to hire a dedicated safety director. "That person has re-ally put some teeth into our safety program, and now we're pushing it appropriately and consistently, like we needed to do all along," Wilson says. "It has made a dramatic difference."

Secondly, all employees, both new and existing, were given a safety orientation to make sure everyone was on the same page regarding the company's commitment to safety. Wilson and his management team then sat down with a group of employees representing all disciplines of the company, and asked, "What's most important: safety, productivity, or quality?"

Wilson describes how the meeting went: "One person stood up and said, 'Safety. You've got to be safe.' And we said, 'That's right.' Then another person said, 'Productivity. You've got to be competitive.' And we said, 'That's right.' A third person said, 'Quality. You've got to put out a great product,' which is also right.

"Out of that meeting, we actually crafted a new company logo to illustrate that safety, productivity, and quality are on equal footing at this company. If, when you're starting a project, you can ask yourself, 'Am, I going to be safe, am I going to work in the most productive way, and am I going to produce a high-quality project,' then go ahead. If you get even one 'no' to those three criteria, stop immediately."

A recent innovation at Miller Bonded is the implementation of a pass-port-sized booklet that sums up the company's safety program. All employees are required to carry it with them at all times. It's used for training as well as reference, and also serves as a violations tracker. "If someone violates some aspect of the program, you can write them up right in their booklet, and it stays with them," Wilson explains. "That really bothers people, and makes them get their act together quite quickly."

What has been the ultimate result of the new focus on safety? A new safety culture, not something "that's just printed on some brochure," Wilson says. "You have to keep pushing and promoting and making the effort to create a real safety culture, but the effort is ultimately worth it," Wilson concludes. "Sure there are financial benefits to the company, but that actually begins to pale in comparison to the fact that our employees understand that we truly want them to get home safely to their families every night. I would say five years ago we talked a lot more about the numbers, such as how our modifier was going to improve, but I don't hear that anymore. The emotional side — the people side — is really the reason for this program. If we keep our people safe, the numbers will take care of themselves."

In 2003, the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association, Inc. (SMACNA) developed the High-Performing Contractor (HPC) Assessment Model. This tool uses various business related modules, including safety, to raise the bar for contractor performance excellence. SMACNA offers local HPC-related education programs for its chapters, including Safety Cultures of the High Performing Contractor. The information in this article is based on several concepts within the HPC assessment model and the safety cultures program.

Dennis Sowards is president of Quality Support Services, and Mike McCullion is director of safety and health for the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA). For more information on safety programs and safety cultures, contact McCullion at 703/995-4027. For more information on SMACNA's High Performing Contractor Assessment, contact Sowards at 480/835-1185.