When my children were young, it often fit my schedule to drive them to school. Loading them into the car on a cold Kansas morning, I told them all to buckle their seat belts. Once they were buckled up, I started putting the car in gear when my daughter asked, "Daddy, why aren’t you buckled up?"
When I first got my driver's license, the seat belt law did not exist, so I usually did not wear one. I had not gotten into the habit. It was normal for me to drive without my seat belt fastened, but I would have never dreamed of backing out of the driveway without my children safely and securely buckled (for more on seat belt safety, see Seat Belts: The 2 Second Fix that Could Save Your Life).
Love for my three kids dictated the need to make sure they were safe. My love for them was my moral safety compass, and I protected them.
In a work environment, such as a construction site or the manufacturing floor, we need a moral safety compass we can follow to make sure employees stay safe. Okay, I realize there is a big difference between a father's love for his kids and what supervisors, managers, and bosses feel for their employees, but it still comes down to caring about their well-being. What we need is a moral compass with absolutes set up front in regards to worker safety. Management must realize it is up to them to protect all employees.
Management’s position on safety must be well stated with conviction and consistency (see Common Safety Cliches & Why They Aren't Helping). There must be a rock-solid commitment to employee safety and well-being, and you can be sure employees will test it.
How do we get management and employees to become proactive about each other’s safety? How do we make “Safety First” more than just a slogan?
Commitment + Community = Safety
A company whose commitment to people and safety I have always admired is Proctor and Gamble. Their values state: “P&G is its people and the values by which we live…We act on the conviction that our men and women will always be our most important asset.”
Statements like this set up a culture of caring for one another. This is where safety begins – people must come first before safety can come first. Without that commitment, there is no need for a moral compass because employees are viewed as a means to an end. They are an expendable commodity. Safety is not in the picture.
When employees are cared for, respected, and empowered, it’s like electricity hitting a lightbulb. The environment comes to life. Morale goes up as employees become engaged (learn more in How Engaged Are Your Employees?).
Like a family, all employees must be viewed as important and valued. “You are one of us and we look out for each other.” This is establishing community at work. One way to encourage this is by creating a team atmosphere, and make sure that everyone identifies themselves as being part of a team. This could be a department, production line, and so on. Teams become family, and we look out for those on our team.
If you ask soldiers why they risk their lives on the battlefield, they will not say "for God and country." What they will say is, "I do it for the fellow soldier on my right and on my left. I’ve got their backs because I know they have mine."
We want this same commitment to each other at work – we look out for each other. We want employees looking out for the safety of fellow employees. One safety representative can’t do it. We need everyone engaged in safety.
So, now that we have established that we care for each other, what do we use for a standard? What becomes our Moral Safety Compass?
Our Moral Safety Compass
I remember performing a safety walk in our factory with another safety professional. We observed others working. I was the factory safety officer at the time and the senior trainer. In this role, I provided all safety training and was fully responsible for our safety efforts.
No one knew more about our safety environment and culture than I did. In 2008, we had been told we had one of the worst incident rates of all our company's factories worldwide. I learned this just a few short weeks after becoming our factory safety officer. OSHA recordable accidents were so common, they were accepted as just part of working here. We worked in a fluorescent lamp factory. Our work environment was hazard-rich, including:
- High-speed equipment
- Broken glass
- Open fires
- Powered lift trucks
- Raised Platforms
- Extremes in temperature (during the summer, many departments on the factory floor would exceed 120 Fahrenheit)
The man I was with during the safety walk was a good friend and safety expert from Europe named Mark. He had a keen eye for safety and a real love for employee well-being. He pointed to a mechanic that was working near a high-speed production machine with its guard off. The mechanic was just inches away from moving parts that could easily grab him if he got too close.
Mark knew this was most likely a common practice as the mechanic seemed comfortable near the equipment running with no guard. He pointed to the mechanic and asked me the following question: “Bryan, if one of your grown children came to work here, would you feel good about him performing that task, working so close to unguarded high speed equipment?” Mark had just provided us with our Moral Safety Compass.
Some may say, "Well, there is no safe way to perform certain tasks." I have heard this before and it is a cop out. Usually, it means the safe way costs more money, down time, or is otherwise inefficient. Never accept that answer – find a way to do it safely.
If you would not feel comfortable letting one of your grown sons or daughters perform a work task, don’t allow any employee to perform it. This is the heart of community and family. We look out for each other.
Spreading the Word = Giving Everyone a Safety Compass
In 2008, our factory was experiencing three accidents per week. That means each Monday we knew that by the end of the week, three of our friends were going to get hurt. This was like a lottery from Hell. I remember telling one of my friends in our HR department about this statistic and we both felt so helpless. It was a terrible feeling!
No one on our site had any real knowledge or experience in driving safety and our safety stats proved it. What we did have was a caring management team and a company that valued safety.
We first established the compass: If you would not let a loved one perform an unsafe act, don’t let a coworker! We set our safety slogan as a simple “Safety First.”
We then asked for help from our hourly workers. They came up with hundreds of documented safety improvements. We recorded 545 completed safety projects in 2009. That year we reduced OSHA recordable accidents by 50% over 2008!
The ideas employees came up with were amazing. One employee suggested that we create a safety t-shirt and give one away to every employee who implements a safety project. We did this for the next several years. The cool thing about this project? If you were to visit the same factory today, you would find about a fourth of the shop floor personnel wearing safety t-shirts. Walking reminders that in our factory, safety comes first!
I witnessed employees reminding each other to “get their PPE on” and follow established safety rules. They were watching out for their teammates. They had each other’s backs.
Establish that You Care and Prove It
In 2011, I was a guest speaker at a large conference in Jacksonville, Florida. I was speaking on how to develop a safety culture (learn the Essential Elements of Creating a Workplace Safety Culture). My presentation went very well and toward the end, I got caught up in my own emotion and made the statement, “Any company that puts profit above the safety of their employees is morally bankrupt and should not be in business!” To my delight and relief, I heard thunderous applause as the audience agreed. We must establish that we are committed to the well-being of those that work with us. We will not purposely put people at risk of injury to do their job.
I learned my children were as concerned for my safety as I was for theirs. I now buckle my seat belt. A family, community, or team looks out for each other. We invest in those who invest in us. We build relationships on caring and trust. If you have their backs, they will have yours. You protect me and I will protect you.
Make sure your organization has the benefits a moral safety compass provides. If you would not feel comfortable watching a loved one perform a dangerous work task, don’t let anyone perform it. Find a better way.