What Makes a Good Safety Director? You Have to Be More of a Diplomat Than a Cop

Thomas G. Dolan

March 2005

"In the 1930s and 1940s, the steel workers used to walk the bare beams, eat lunch on them, and sometimes even take naps on them,” says Jim Dunn, corporate safety director for Baker Drywall, LLC, Dallas. "The old-time engineers figured that for every five stories built, they would lose one mate. So, with a 20-story building, they would count on the loss of four men and feel they did well if they lost only two or three.” This is one story Dunn likes to tell in safety meetings. Another is, "Around the turn of the century, workers cutting cedar would guide the saw buy hand. They would lose a finger here, a finger there, until they couldn’t do the work anymore. So they would bring in a son to do it for him.”

So much for the good old days. But why does Dunn find it necessary to tell such gruesome stories about days long past? Times have changed, haven’t they? Well, in some ways, yes. Bosses still have a primary drive toward productivity, and may, on occasion, be inclined to cut corners on safety. These days, however, those in upper management have a greater sense of the importance of keeping workers safe. They work under a weight of regulations from OSHA and other authorities not present in earlier days, as well as the ever-increasing costs of workman’s compensation insurance, and the knowledge of all the hidden costs that accompany a serious accident.

What hasn’t changed that much, however, is the attitude of the workers. They’re more aware of ergonomics and less likely to have a swaggering macho attitude toward construction site dangers than they once had. Still, too many, says Dunn, are still permeated by a casual, complacent attitude that too often results in carelessness.

He points out that "the data show that 20 percent of construction accidents are due to hazards, and 80 percent to behavior. For instance, if the edge of a high-rise is not roped off, so a worker can just walk over the edge, that’s a hazard. But if there is a cable there, and the worker gets on the other side and hangs by the cable to accomplish some little job, that’s behavior.

John Dusch, safety director at MKB Construction, Inc. in Phoenix, says the data he has seen show that "only 4 percent of injuries occur because of hazards. The rest are because employees have committed an unsafe act.”

Whatever set of data you choose, the relationship of behavior to hazards looks pretty bad. "Employees have forced businesses to become more safety conscious,” Dusch says. "Workers commit unsafe acts, expect the employers to pay the hospital bills, and the insurance rates keep increasing.”

RULES DERIVED FROM LIFE

This being the case, simply teaching the regulations and safe practices is not enough. Safety directors have to change behavior, and to do that they have to first deal with bad attitudes.

"A classic example,” Dusch says, "is I was teaching an OSHA 500 course, and this old-time carpenter’s foreman stood up and said, ‘This is all BS, a bunch of dumb regulations that people write, people who are trying to teach me how to do my job.’ My response was, ‘I’m very glad you brought that point up. Because for every written rule that you say is dumb, a man gave up a finger, a leg, an arm or a life. OSHA does not write standards before something happens, only after someone—usually many people—are injured or killed.”

Though Dusch had 28 years of experience in the military before coming to his present position, he doesn’t believe a command attitude is a good way for a safety director to go about his job. "You don’t want to be a safety cop, that’s not an effective way to do it,” Dusch says. "You want to be more of an instructor or teacher, like a football or baseball coach even. You want to show leadership and make people want to follow. If you’re too dogmatic, you turn people off.”
"If you just harp on the rules and regulations you can actually distract people from safety,” says Howard Morrow, safety director for Brinker Team Construction in Detroit. "You want them followed, but instead of enforcing, you want to talk about it, break them down into common sense. You have to make the rules seem reasonable, and then you have to stay on top of it and keep the reminders going.”
One of the problems all the safety directions interviewed acknowledge is that the preaching of safety, like that of any other kind of preaching, tends to grow old.

"There’s the problem of the same old, same old,” Dunn says. "You have to try to keep it fresh. A lot of directors will just have the workers watch a video, ask questions, have a test, and next time go on to another video. I try to be a little bit of an entertainer.”

Dunn says he mixes up the conventional ways with show-and-tell games, or using different props, such as electrical components: "We might go out into the warehouse and put scaffolding together, to see what’s good and bad about the result. It makes them think.” Dunn says his talks usually have three main components, one is history, the second is hands-on, and the third, as in the scaffolding exercise, is recognition—seeing what is safe and what is not.

MANAGE THE MANAGERS

Yet, though an important focus of a safety director’s job is creating and maintaining safe working conditions, it doesn’t stop there. "Of course, you have to have a good safety background, but I look at my job mainly as a management function, managing workers, but also working with management,” Dunn says. "You have to continually guide managers and executives to see the big picture. Some safety programs can result in a short term drop in injuries, but will wear out before long.”

Dunn relates that he approaches safety first as an ethical consideration, eliciting the agreement that the company does have a responsibility for workers’ safety, and managers really do want them to be free of injury. "We’re all working together,” Dunn continues, "but we are a business. A safety manager has to have a lot of knowledge of the business, and be able to show how the experience modifier rate affects insurance premiums, and why training and safety equipment are ultimately good investments.

"You also have to continually make them aware of all the hidden costs of an injury. There is a lot of data that show that seven-tenths of the costs are ‘undercover,’ such as the lessening of morale and the need for other workers to cover production [when a co-worker can’t work because of an injury]. There’s always a slowdown in bringing in another worker, especially if he is not trained for the job. Any serious injury takes a lot of my own and other supervisors’ time.”

Being a safety director is a "management balancing act,” Dunn says. He has to provide the right information to upper management and guidance to the workers. But a built-in pressure comes from the foreman, whose mandate is to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"I try to instruct the foremen, rather than tell them what to do,” Dunn says. "If real enforcement is needed, I work with the general superintendent, who is on my level, and who has direct control over the foremen.”

"The hardest part of my job is dealing with the foremen,” Dusch says, "because they’re under constant pressure to get the job done. It’s hard to make them understand that production has to be balanced with safety.”

Dusch adds that he is responsible only to the company owner, so, if necessary, he can call on him for support. "Not every safety director has this,” Dusch says. "It gives me a little more of a free hand, which could be a bad thing if abused. But it’s really helpful when, as in my situation, the owner is extremely safety conscious. I think more and more owners are becoming that way. A good safety program has to start at the top and filter down. It doesn’t rise up from the bottom.”

The other safety directors spoken to may have to relate to other managers and executives and not just the owner, but they all agree that the safety has to come from the top.

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP

"Without top management support, your safety program is dead in the water,” says Travis Holiman, loss control coordinator for F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc., Fulton, Miss. "Support has to work from the top down, not the bottom up, and it has to happen on an everyday basis.”

To turn to an executive perspective, Howard Bernstein, president, Penn Installations, Inc., Summerhill, Pa., agrees that there is a built-in tension between "hurry up and get the job done and slow down and be safe. Many OSHA rules are at odds with working efficiently. Ultimately, you have to have a total commitment to making your workers safe. We feel that if we have to err, it’s on the side of keeping people safe.

"We had two falling accidents, where height was not involved. Our investigations showed they were the result of poor housekeeping on the part of the general contractor. We put him on notice that we would not work under conditions that were not safe.”

How far would Bernstein go to enforce this attitude?

"We’ll walk off of a job rather than take unnecessary risks,” he replies. "And it has come to that. We were on a job that involved setting steel trusses with a crane. It was winter weather in Pennsylvania, with snow and icy winds. Originally, this work was scheduled for the summer, but it was pushed into winter because of faulty scheduling. It created a series of risks that would not have been present had the work taken place in the summer. So we walked off that job.”

Although Bernstein demonstrates that a real commitment to safety has to come from the top, he also says, "I feel one of the things that helped us most is that we give employees some sense of ownership in the program,” he says. "If someone were to say that the safety glasses were not of the best quality, we would challenge him to find the best safety glasses there are, that have the likelihood of being worn. We would give that person authority to purchases those glasses in bulk and distribute them to his peers.

"This would be one small example. It’s a far more effective way to promote safety than having someone in the office deciding what would be most appropriate.” Bernstein says that "usually we’ll go into safety meetings with a very short agenda. Perhaps we’re made aware of a couple of problems. Our job then is to stimulate the personnel to deal with those issues, whatever they might be.”

Bernstein cites two specific examples: one had to do with workers suffering lacerations from metal studs, and the second was debris falling into workers’ eyes from overhead work. "A construction manager found some Kevlar® gloves that were pretty effective in protecting hands,” Bernstein says. That took care of the first problem, but then there was the problem with falling debris.

"The bigger problem,” he says, "was that though the men had the best intentions of wearing goggles when the overhead debris started, the goggles were either in their truck, job box or their pocket. So what one worker came up with was the idea of a retaining cord that allowed the goggles to hang within easy reach. It made it very easy for the men to put the goggles on without interrupting their work flow.”

Of the many varied qualities a good safety director should have, Holiman probably speaks for all of her peers when she says, "You don’t have something tangible at the end of the day because you don’t know who might have been hurt without your efforts. But you have to really care. You have to really believe you can make a difference.”