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The Safety Culture: Making or Breaking It

We know that in a company where safety is a given, the employees will feel both cared for and appreciated—and they will likely spread the word, too, making their friends easier to recruit.


We also know that to reach this stage, safety has to be an established company culture, part of the company’s DNA, so to speak.


Turning to the contractor members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, we wanted to know what would make and what would break a company safety culture.

Making It

Narrowing down the factors that initiate, create and maintain a company’s safety culture to the main ones might be a big task, but here goes.


Without hesitation, Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City, stresses, “The first and key factor is management commitment; without that, you don’t stand a chance. The second factor is persistence and employee buy-in. And the third is vigilance—you can never allow or tolerate complacency.


“I am passionate about safety, and following my passion is what lets me stay the course. Usually, we think of passion as strong emotion and enthusiasm, but it’s more than that. In Latin, it literally means to suffer or endure—so following your passion means that you love it so much that you are willing to suffer and sacrifice for it. Being passionate about something is not easy; you can never let your guard down.


“When it comes to safety, there can be no exceptions, no gray areas; it’s white or black. Our company safety culture did not take hold until we took that 100 percent stance: 100 percent hard hats, gloves, glasses, the lot.”


“First, encourage employees to give feedback,” says Jorge Vazquez, safety manager at Marek in Texas. “Then, based on that feedback, build a company safety plan. It is crucial that you act on and incorporate suggestions from this employee feedback. Lastly, measure or monitor safety performance.”


Suggests John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, “Always have plenty of safety and prevention supplies on hand. Make sure you have the contact information for each [employee]’s family in the event of an accident. And conduct weekly safety meetings.”


Says Joe Johnson, president at Prestige Drywall, Inc. in Minnesota, “First, communicate your expectations of a safe and clean job site every day. Two, stress the importance of safety, not just from a monetary standpoint, but from a human aspect—we want all of our employees to go home to their families in one piece every night. And lastly, make the punishment for not following safety guidelines clear, and then follow through on that punishment as needed, no matter who it is. You cannot have different standards for different employees when it comes to safety.”


“The leaders of the company, its owners and executives, must initiate and participate in creating the culture,” says John Hinson, division president at Marek in Dallas. “These owners and leaders are the ones who set the behavior that is expected of their team. The creation of the culture cannot be delegated to employees. This creates ‘the culture.’


“The same top leaders must walk the talk. If you expect employees to take care of themselves and work safely, then you and your leaders must always follow the same protocol. Not most of the time, or just frequently, or when it is convenient or occasionally, but always. Always means all the time. This exhibits ‘the culture.’


“Since people are your most important asset, you must communicate with them. Listen to them and respond to their input. This creates buy-in and this promotes ‘the culture.’”


Gary Woodworth, CEO of The Gallegos Corporation in Colorado, offers these factors: Executive level buy-in; executive participation; company willingness to invest in equipment; and stop work when needed.”


Says Jerry Smith, president of Baker Drywall Austin, Ltd. in Texas and AWCI’s current president, says you need “100 percent buy-in by management, 100 percent support for the safety manager and his or her safety program, and making sure ample amounts of resources are available for training and proper equipment/training.”


Shelley Sigurdson, safety director at Expert Drywall, Inc. in Washington, suggests, “Make it very well known that we care about their safety. Provide paid-time safety training, and provide extra safety incentives like coats, hats, sweatshirts.”


“At the top is management commitment to the process,” says Roger Olson, president of Sig Olson & Sons Plastering, Inc. in Minnesota. “You can tell folks to wear hard hats, but if you show up without one, all of your words will fall on deaf ears, and rightly so. Add to that a willingness to commit funds to safety training.


“Second is the communication process itself. We have monthly safety committee meetings and at least biweekly toolbox safety talks. These aren’t necessarily training sessions but often address important jobsite-specific concerns.


“Third is training, training and more training. You must be willing to put forth the effort and commit the funding for safety. In today’s high-speed construction world, there are more hazards than ever. We must know how to deal with them ahead of time.”


Quips Jerry Reicks Jr., president/CEO of JARCO Builders, Ltd. in Iowa, “I would say that it’s all about the three Bs. 1) begging—‘Please wear your hard hat. Two: bribery—‘I will pay you to wear your hard hat.’ 3) big stick—‘You are fired if you do not wear your hard hat.’ Since we need all of our people on the jobs, we rely heavily on the second B, bribery.”


Shares Ed Finley, safety director at Gibson-Lewis, LLC in Indiana, “I have 40 years of experience in the safety field, and for me, buy-in from the top is number one. Consistent message is number two—you can’t look the other way at any time. And third is vigilance in identifying the hazards.”


Says Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, “Continual training is key. All our foremen are OSHA 30 certified. Our Monday morning jobsite safety trainings address a different topic each week, and each employee must sign off as having attended. We also have quarterly meetings with all foremen, superintendents and project managers to address, especially, safety issues as well as upcoming work and whatever else is important.”


Offers Richard Wagner, owner of RWE—Richard Wagner Enterprises, LLC, in North Carolina, “We spend a lot of valuable work-time addressing employee and other trades’ safety on our projects. We insist on OSHA classes that we pay for. Add to that annual employee safety allowances, toolbox talks and reprimands.


“We also work hand-in-hand with our workers’ compensation company to make sure that we are following the required state and federal rules.


“We always try to fix stupid, which normally translates to lack of attention to a situation that, if ignored, will see someone hurt. That’s why team safety is important, each employee looking out for the other.”


“The most important factor is top management’s dedication to a safe and healthy workplace,” says Matthew Taylor, vice president of compliance/risk at OCP Contractors, Inc. in Ohio. “Given that, employee involvement and empowerment in the safety program is crucial. Finally, allow and promote open and equal communication between all ranks and members of the organization. Employee health and safety is the one area in which all entities within OCP share equal authority, accountability and duty to ensure injury-free and successful projects.”


Thomas Dougherty, safety and project manager at B&B Interior Systems, Inc. in Florida, says, “You must provide the resources for success. It’s common knowledge that a strong safety workplace culture is the byproduct of giving employees the resources they need to succeed. You must demonstrate commitment. All levels of the organization must treat safety as the important cultural factor that it is, and there is no better way for leaders to demonstrate this than by personally attending the toolbox talks or other types of training sessions—with a positive and concerned attitude.


“Also, ideas and actions must always go hand in hand. Our employees are our most valuable asset, and their safety is priority one. There is nothing more important than that. No matter the production pressures, safety is always first. Employees will not miss it if you put safety second, and it will take years to regain their trust.”


“Leadership commitment at all levels is crucial,” says Dan VandenBurg, safety manager at Heartland Acoustics & Interiors in Colorado. “A safety-committed leadership will show that safety is valued, as expressed by their actions. Positive leadership empowers others in the company to establish and achieve their own safety initiatives.


“Second, always put safety first. Safety should always win over production. Working safely is an investment, not a cost.


“Third, good safety communication increases employee awareness of safety topics, which in turn empowers them to act safely and to ensure that others do as well.”


Greg Eckstrom, vice president at California Drywall in San Jose, confirms the overall view: “Safety culture starts at the top. It would be difficult to establish and maintain a safety culture if it did not start at the highest level of the organization. Executive leadership must promote a culture of safety and make their commitment evident to the rest of the organization.”


Yes, what rings the clearest in all responses is that the safety culture starts at the top, always, always, always. If senior management is not passionate about safety and their employees’ welfare, the safety culture will never sprout and grow. All levels of management must walk the safety talk, not just senior management.

Breaking It

What will kill an existing safety culture or will make sure that such a culture never takes off?


Says Zaretzky, “Complacency. Not keeping safety the top priority. Not having safety as a company core value. The moment complacency sets in, you’re doomed: You must stay vigilant. Safety excellence never happens by accident—that is our mantra.”


Observes Vazquez, “Failing to establish a good ‘internal customer service’ will stifle a safety culture. Employees are always looking to participate in company programs, but if they see that their feedback is not being considered or that rules only apply to certain situations or individuals, that’s when they feel betrayed and their commitment to safety flies out the door.”


Says Kirk, “One way to kill the safety culture is to first conduct a ‘required’ safety meeting and then, immediately afterward, stress and demand a lot of production—making production the top priority. Experienced and long-term company workers will probably not be affected as much by this shift in priorities, but a new hire will become very nervous trying to produce more and will more than likely hurt himself.”


Offers Johnson, “Nothing will derail a safety program faster than treating one employee differently from another when it comes to the rules. If you have a hard-hat policy, you can’t allow your best foreman to work without it and then send an apprentice home for not wearing his. If you aren’t consistent, well, then you don’t have a program.”


Hinson’s view is that “a company sabotages company safety culture when they do not care about their workers and do not provide avenues to support the safety of their people. This is often apparent in companies that employ only a few leaders and then outsource or ‘subcontract’ labor responsibilities to independent subcontractors, labor brokers and crews that have little or no resources for safety training or safety enforcement.”


Adds Woodworth, “Inconsistent expectations from one project to another will create the perception that safety really doesn’t matter.”


And by Smith’s light, “If the safety manager is not backed by management to ensure that all employees—especially new hires that need to learn the safety culture of the company—receive proper and timely training, the company’s safety culture will fail.”


Observes Sigurdson, “Leaders not leading and following company policy will kill any existing safety culture. We all need to show our workers the importance of following the rules. It takes only one bad apple to spoil the rest. Also, when the workload is too heavy or when you don’t have enough qualified workers on a job, some schedules become so tight that safety takes a back seat to production.”


Says Olson, “Management that won’t commit or ends their commitment to the ongoing safety process will break the culture. Also, employees who blow off the safety rules, or worse yet, foremen who blow off the safety rules.”


Observes Pat Arrington, principal at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico, “In some cases, a company might suffer from workers who engineer accidents in order to claim workers’ compensation insurance. This, of course, will drive your WC rates up since they’re based on the number and severity of claims. Also, too many WC claims demonstrate you’ve already lost your safety culture.”


Shares Finley, “If you as the safety manager don’t set an example, the culture with suffer. I always visit every one of our job sites wearing every piece of required safety gear. Also, if you don’t provide the appropriate training, you cannot assume that they know what precautions to take. And, of course, safety has to be a passion, from the top down.”


According to Taylor, “Complacency is first on this list. When you believe that you have achieved safety program perfection, you will stop coming up with new approaches.


“Lack of accountability would be second on this list. Not holding people accountable for their actions will lead employees to question management’s belief in a safety culture that claims to put safety first. A good question to ask yourself is: If an employee has trouble following safety procedures, are the consequences the same as they would be for attendance problems or for missing production goals?”


Observes Dougherty, “The key factors are compliance and complacency. It’s easy to fall into the trap of running on autopilot, assuming that your company is meeting all safety (OSHA) compliance standards, but are they? Webster defines complacency as ‘Self-satisfaction, especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.’ Compliance complacency can therefore be defined as ‘Organizational satisfaction with the (compliance) status quo without regard to, or intent to learn of, potential compliance risks in the business.’ This complacency will kill the safety culture in its tracks.”


For VandenBurg, it’s lack of leadership: “Uncommitted leadership to safety shows employees that safety is just talk, not truly valued. When leaders fail to act on safety initiatives, employees will notice and will follow close behind.


“Also, not putting safety first but stressing production above all else, or taking safety shortcuts, will teach employees that safety is not important. This will engender a negative attitude that is difficult to correct.


“Lastly, poor communication and lack of safety training tell employees that safety’s not really necessary, leading employees to become dismissive and disengaged.”


Adds Eckstrom, “Attitude. The attitude of an organization, from top to bottom, affects the success of a safety culture. If there is a lack of trust by employees or employers, or a focus on the negative, there is no safety culture.”

The Price of Safety

Can you put a price on safety? And if so, what would it be?


Offers Zaretzky, “You cannot put a price on it. It is priceless. Really, there is no cost involved—rather, it is an investment in your company and its people and culture. Looking back at it, I see safety as the heart of our company—caring about people and their well-being. The rest is just byproducts of a safety culture that attracted people to want to come and work for us in the first place. Value people, not production. Make it personal. Place people above profits.”


Says Vazquez, “We always say there is no price on safety, but in reality, everyone puts a price on it when they realize talking can only get you so far. The next step is commitment and accountability, and to act on information the company has gathered from its employees on safety issues—i.e., taking employee feedback seriously. In fact, I would say the price for safety is management commitment.”


“I’m not sure you can put a price on safety,” says Johnson, “because I don’t think you can quantify the savings. It would be extremely difficult to figure out how much money you saved because people weren’t hurt or missing time.”


Hinson says, “We can’t put a price on the safety of our teammates. That would be the same as asking how much would you spend to protect your son or daughter from having an accident today—an accident that could hospitalize or paralyze them forever? If you have to set a price, then the answer would be ‘All I have, plus whatever I could borrow, plus whatever I could steal and finally, whatever I could promise.’”


Smith feels that “there is no price for safety. It is invaluable.”


Sigurdson agrees: “It’s invaluable.”


As does Finley, “There is no price you can place on it; always put people first.”


Taylor observes, “The price for safety is not close to the price you’ll pay for not being safe.”


Suggests Dougherty, “There is really no price on safety. If proper training is provided, the price of that training is nothing compared to the cost of a medical bill, workers’ comp claims or worse: an OSHA investigation that shuts down the job site. In fact, overlooking workplace safety can result in high costs, both social and financial. These include increased workers’ compensation claims and premiums, more legal and commercial risk for higher-ranking managers, and a decline in efficiency.


“Less quantifiable, but no less impactful: A company’s reputation with its external and internal stakeholders, as well as staff morale, are affected negatively by a sloppy or missing safety culture.”


Adds VandenBurg, “I’m not sure you can put a price on safety. I feel that taking the necessary precautions and putting together a good working plan is worth the cost, any cost.


“What’s a life worth?”

Other Thoughts on Safety

Asserts Zaretzky, with pride: “I walk the talk.”


Observes Woodworth, “We have seen a heightened sense of pride among our workers when they are best-in-class on-site safety.”


“Safety,” says Smith, “has to be recognized as a number-one priority for your company—above all else. This has to be spread throughout your whole company from top to bottom.”


Adds Olson, “There are many benefits to having a good company safety policy, including major discounts on insurance and workers’ compensation, fewer lost days due to injury and the great team effort that is evident within a company with a strong safety culture.”


Suggests Arrington, “Management must accept the upfront cost to keep the workers’ comp costs at acceptable levels. It is like auto insurance: When you have accidents, your rate goes up; when you have multiple accidents, you may not be able to afford the insurance.


“Also, all contracts require proof of insurance. The only items a contactor cannot ‘dance with’ is bond rate and workers’ compensation rate. Prospective general contractors are also required to select subcontractors who have a WC modification rate at a determined level.


“Case in point: Los Alamos National Labs, Sandia National Labs and White Sands National Proving Grounds all require a WC mod at 0.89 and lower for a sub to be on site.”


Says Finley, “You have to be patient. I’ve been with this company for eight years, and they are now beginning to realize that I really care about them—they’re my children. I don’t focus on rules, I focus on people. “I always head out to the site ahead of the project start to determine what specific safety issue might be present on this job.”


Adds Dougherty, “There’s no question that construction is a dangerous industry—in fact, one in 10 construction workers is injured on site every year. But what’s even more astounding is that so many construction injuries—and deaths—are so easily preventable.


“And don’t forget: Employee buy-in is key, but they won’t buy in at all without management’s wholehearted commitment.”

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.

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