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Three Tips to Managing a Successful Safety Program

You may have heard that when it comes to real estate there are three things that matter most: location, location, location! Well, when it comes to three tips for managing a successful safety program, there are also three things that matter most: management, management, management!

In this article I will go into more detail than what I provided the AWCI Industry Awards Committee when my company submitted its nomination for a safety award. The nomination form asks for three reasons why your safety program works, and here are my top reasons:

1. Safety costs plenty but pays off bountifully.
Management must be willing to make the investment. Organizational success depends on management’s willingness to finance the safety effort. Let’s face it: Safety costs money. Get over it and spend the money! Unless management is willing to put their money where their mouth is, the organization will never take safety seriously.

Where will the money go? Easy—it’s spent on providing personal protective equipment, hiring that safety manager, maintaining your equipment, purchasing new equipment when needed, keeping those records, maintaining routine inspections, managing those claims, not to mention providing enforcement as well as necessary incentives for safety. Do you think you can’t afford it? Believe me, you can’t afford not to!

A huge mistake that is often made in the short-term interest of “saving money” is the failure to provide a “modified duty, back to work program.” Statistics prove that consistently utilizing such a plan reduces fraud as well as recovery time. It does so by sending a clear message to the work force. The message is this: Nobody takes advantage of the organization by sitting home collecting insurance money. No couch potatoes!

You can and should be as creative as necessary to be sure those injured continue to play a role (within doctor’s limitations) contributing to your organization during recovery. You will be surprised how determined they are to get off modified duty and back to their regular job. Don’t give the injured the opportunity to take a vacation on the company’s dime.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone’s out to take advantage of the company. What I am saying is that fraud can and does happen all too frequently. You must aggressively prevent it. Workers’ comp fraud costs our industry a fortune, and by keeping people involved you can substantially diminish the likelihood of it occurring. If you don’t spend the money on one such program, you will pay for it anyway (and then some) in higher insurance costs. Make this a company policy, and in the long run it will save your organization money.

The return on investments like those mentioned above easily offsets the cost, and can turn your safety department into a profit center by reducing your EMR and saving you thousands of dollars annually.

I’m going to spend a little more time on this point. Why? Because I believe the fundamental misconception that safety and a top notch safety program are just too expensive, needs to be exposed and realized industry wide. This misconception drives all kinds of corner cutting in the interests of “saving time and money,” but it accomplishes the exact opposite. Thinking like this is probably the most significant contributor to the lack of safety and high injury rate that plagues our industry. It affects both employers and employees. No one is exempt, at least until they come to this realization and change their thinking.

Let’s face it. No one gets up in the morning and deliberately sets out to have an accident. Nor does any business owner deliberately set out to put his or her employees in danger, unless that owner is completely negligent. So then, why is the construction environment so unsafe? What is the cause of the majority of accidents? What simple change in thinking and corresponding behavior would result in employees and employers significantly improving their safety record?

Is It Safe to Be Safe?

While on the one hand I don’t want to be overly philosophical or needlessly belabor the point, I do want to make certain this point is well made. Coming to terms with this fact answers the questions of the prior paragraph. The message is this: It is safe to be safe!

In other words, it is safe for you, as a business owner, and your organization to fully embrace all of the time and expense it takes to develop and provide a culture of safety. It is not only affordable, as I said earlier—you can’t afford not to.

In my opinion, the single common denominator that characterizes the mindset of many business owners and employees is a misconception that colors their thinking and negatively influences their behavior. They believe that taking a wholehearted approach toward safety is simply too expensive. Though they would never articulate that, it is deeply rooted in their thinking. They see it as too big of a risk. It costs too much time and money. They look around at other businesses and competitors who also believe this misconception and accept it as the status quo. How will we compete, if we take on the burden and cost of an aggressive approach to safety? It will cost a small fortune and negatively impact productivity. How can we afford to be so different, breaking stride from the industry and bearing the cost, when competitors don’t?

Such shortsighted thinking is precisely opposite to the truth. Breaking free from this mindset and embracing the time and expense involved, coupled with an expectation of return on investment is the answer. That mindset will ultimately pay off bountifully and yield substantial returns. Trust me on this one; I’ve survived the struggle, changed my thinking and experienced the benefit.

Moreover, as a business owner you are constantly under the observing eye of your organization. Believe me, they’re reading you like an open book with bold print. You lead the effort. Which direction will it be? If they see you balk and hedge, unwilling to bite the bullet and pay the price for what needs to be done, be careful. The very essence of your safety program hangs in the balance.

When you are faced with the tough decisions, you have but one choice. Do the right thing in the interest of developing a culture of safety, and believe in the return on that investment. It will come.

If you can pass this test, I have good news: You have overcome the primary obstacle that interferes with developing a successful safety program. Now everyone knows where you stand and your decision-making is such that it has been clearly communicated from the top! Safety matters most!

2. Safety matters most.

Management must demonstrate that to the work force. Now that upper management has set the precedent, under management is empowered by the position taken. However, they must also pass a test of their own. They must be willing to invest the time and effort necessary to prove that safety matters most to them personally. Such proof will be demonstrated in their day-to-day activities and interaction with the work force.

The very best way to take the message that “safety matters most” to the work force is new hire orientation (NHO). This way no one escapes. Safety must be strongly emphasized on day one. This is critical. Personal protective equipment must be inspected and supplied if needed during the NHO. Specific safety issues relative to the tasks that the new hires are hired to perform must also be addressed. There are many other topics that can and should be covered at new hire orientations, but for now we’ll stay focused on safety.

Good management will have a well written Injury and Illness Prevention Program. It must be more than a shelf program—a program that exists, but that’s about it, it sits on a shelf somewhere. Every manager should know and understand the organization’s IIPP and have a copy with them at all times. There are many standard plans available, but these plans are rarely sufficient. They make a good starting point and provide a helpful structure but should be carefully reviewed by upper management and personalized to meet your organizations needs.

It must be a real plan that upper management has agreed upon, fully implemented and employees are familiar with. That will take time, and NHO is just the beginning. It must also be followed with ongoing training, tailgate safety meetings, job site inspections and an annual safety emphasis week. All company gatherings should also have safety content as well. Make sure they do!

Great management will maintain the routine of inspecting what they expect; making certain everyone is held accountable, rewarding the compliant, disciplining violators and leading by example. Safety matters most!

Getting full cooperation at the middle and under management level is crucial. They, too, send a clear signal to their subordinates. Oftentimes management makes the fatal mistake of thinking that they are above the rules and regularly bend them or at times completely disregard them. This is another fatal flaw that cannot be tolerated. Management must model safe behavior at all times. If management shows up on site without PPE, it substantially undermines the effort. Nevertheless, in some organizations such blatant disregard is all too common. The “do as I say, not as I do” approach rings hollow. They will do as you do. After all, if the boss lacks discipline with regard to safety or fails to take it seriously when it’s inconvenient, why should subordinates take safety seriously? I can assure you, they won’t.

Another common mistake is the hit-and-miss approach of trying to accommodate the various general contractors’ safety requirements rather than maintaining a clear set of company safety requirements everywhere, all the time. Those who fall prey to this tend to follow one set of rules on a particular project and on another set of rules on a different project. They attempt to adjust to their customer’s standards instead of simply maintaining their own.

This is a low grade approach at safety that is content to get away with as much as possible. A successful program requires consistency. A GC’s site rules shouldn’t determine your standards. It is a serious mistake to allow your work force to have two or three sets of standards that are driven by the GC’s safety program—or lack thereof.

If your standards are set at the highest level of OSHA compliance, it will be very unusual to need to adopt higher standards on a particular site. The larger point is that you should never adopt lower standards simply because it’s accepted by another organization. Let your employees know that it’s not about whatever rules apply on various job sites; your company rules are to be followed everywhere all the time—no exceptions. Safety matters most!

3. Safety losses can be reversed.

Management must take full advantage of accidents and near misses. It is said that there are 300 near misses for every accident that actually occurs. If that’s the case there are a lot of “almost” accidents occurring around us every day. They are warnings. Pay attention to them. Communicate them to the work force.

Mistakes will be made. Accidents will happen in the best managed companies. When accidents happen, don’t be discouraged. There are lessons to be learned. Learn them. Use them as tailgate safety topics and to improve your safety program. Your program should be constantly evolving and improving based on your experiences.

The injured make great examples and spokespeople. Employees tend to relate well to one of their own. That deep laceration doesn’t look too pretty. What happened? How could it be avoided in the future?

Be sure to learn something and teach it to the organization. Better yet, let the injured do it. The injured may also be used as safety inspectors/managers. During modified duty they can perform safety meetings. They can they give a firsthand account of what happened and what they will do in the future to avoid it. Can’t they? Sure they can, and they are very compelling.

Since accidents come at a high cost, you might as well get some benefit for the money you inevitably spend. If you manage to get positive benefit out of these negative situations, safety losses can be reversed.

I love (though am not sadistic) to tell stories of injuries I’ve witnessed or heard of. Having been in the trade for 42 years I’ve collected numerous examples that will scare the safety right into you. See for yourself.

Going Down?

This is a true story. As a tradesperson I was a finisher. Most of my work in the field was done piecework which is common in our area. It’s all about getting the most work done in the least amount of time. That’s how you make the most money and save time. Right? Wrong!

In our haste and zeal to save time and make money, we sometimes
take our surroundings for granted. We’ve got our moves down, and we know how to complete our work as quickly and efficiently as possible. For example, when we tape a walk-in closet, it is common to back into the room, tape the header over the door and race around the closet quickly, and we’re on our way. That’s common practice, and most finishers do it just like that.

Well, fortunately for me, the story I have to tell isn’t about me. It was another finisher who, like me, had taken that same approach a thousand times and prided himself in how well it works. However, in this particular case and on one fateful morning as he stepped backward into that walk-in closet, it wasn’t a closet. Oooops! It was an elevator shaft! He found himself suddenly plunging five terrifying stories with his tools in hand. Upon impact he completely destroyed his hips and lower body. He was lucky to live at all. He never did finish work again. With all due respect, that approach didn’t save him one minute of time or earn him a single cent. In fact, that simple mistake cost him a whole lot of time and money.

Stories like these, though sad, definitely get trades people’s attention and need to be told. They have the potential to teach valuable lessons, prevent injuries and, at times, save lives. Can you imagine seeing this individual in a wheelchair addressing a group of trade’s people and warning them of the lessons he learned that dreadful day? Very compelling, to say the least!

Yes, safety costs plenty but pays off bountifully. Safety matters most and, finally, safety losses can be reversed. That is, of course, unless you find yourself the casualty of a mismanaged, unsuccessful safety program.

Doug Bellamy is president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. DBA Alta Drywall, Carlsbad, Calif. His company is also a winner of the 2010 AWCI Excellence in Construction Safety Award.

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