Are we approaching safety with a “get out of jail free card” or are we doing safety for all the right reasons?

As members of the safety and health fraternity, are we crazy in the way we approach safety in our respective companies, or can we confidently claim to be committed to safety?

Are we focusing on a crazy number of safety rules and regulations just to “cover our (corporate) backs” and keep management out of court, or are we seriously committed and focused on sending everyone home safely, every day?

With more than 32 years of experience in the safety and health field in various companies around the world, I can confirm that the latter is the prevailing and sincere objective of many leading companies, and I applaud them for making a real difference.

There are, however, unfortunately still many companies that implement safety controls for all the wrong reasons. Their  primary motivations include: to avoid corporate prosecution, for leaders or safety and health practitioners to be able to report a favourable total recordable case rate or lost-time injury frequency rate at their next management meeting, or to be able to boast a favourable number of injury-free days on the notice board at the main gate.

In those cases, we have a responsibility to shift our safety approach from crazy to committed – from a senseless and seemingly endless tick-box approach to one that’s committed solely and directly to sending all employees, contractors and visitors home safely, every day.

We need safety and health professionals: myth or reality?

Few things can be as damaging to the reputation of the safety and health profession as appointing unqualified or under-qualified people to positions of safety and health professionals.

Many safety practitioners embark on safety-related studies, and thereby achieve either a diploma, degree and in some cases, a master’s degree in safety. They have earned the right to be called safety and health professionals.

Unfortunately, however, many companies put employees through a basic two-to-three week safety course and thereafter appoint them as the company’s safety and health professional. For a company to consider them capable of providing the necessary professional support at that point is both a risk to the business and an insult to the profession. Can you imagine companies employing someone with a two-week course in accounting as their financial manager, or, similarly, a tradesman as their engineering manager? Highly unlikely!

Companies need safety and health professionals. I strongly maintain that only appropriately qualified and experienced people should be appointed to these positions. Only then can we ensure that those portfolios are able to deliver an effective safety and health service to the business.

In addition, and for those under-qualified people, who are perhaps already working in the safety and health field, companies need to ensure that they receive appropriate training, qualifications and experience as a matter of urgency. Only then should they be considered “safety professionals”.

Training versus learning

Most companies conduct general pre-entry gate induction for new employees, contractors, visitors, and annual refresher induction programmes.

Unfortunately, however, many of these induction sessions are “death by PowerPoint” – a seemingly endless number of dense slides with the presenter trying to convey far too much safety information for it to be useful to the audience.

These sessions contain too much information, and are presented to an audience that is too large in number. This severely hampers the transfer of information and compromises the audiences’ ability to interpret and retain that information. As a result, it is unlikely that they’ll subsequently conduct their activities in a safe manner.

We need to be more critical of how and what we deliver during these training sessions. If our intention is to ensure everyone’s safety while on site, is it helpful or necessary to confirm a long list of all the emergency telephone numbers, or to remind visitors to wash their hands after using the bathroom?

We need to be far more strategic in both the content that we share during these training sessions as well as in the way that we share it. The information needs to be useful, directly relevant to everyone’s safety on site, and easy for the audience to internalise.

An added challenge is that it’s often the safety practitioners who compile these induction training programmes. While they may be subject experts, they are, understandably, not always experts in the field of effective public speaking or PowerPoint delivery, and in fact may have little or no experience in presenting relevant information in a tangible way

If necessary, companies need to consider appointing a professional to compile appropriate slides for their induction programme, which should focus only on the critical safety elements, and should be aimed at a learning experience rather than a teaching one. Consideration needs to be given to the ideal number of people in an audience as well as the ideal length/duration of a session.

Safety talks versus engaging sessions

Just as companies have safety induction sessions, so, too, are safety talks or toolbox-talk initiatives common in most operations. These vary from a five-minute pre-shift talk to a more detailed discussion with employees (and often contractors) on specific topics, for example safety rules, performance issues, or concerns on site at that particular time or phase of production.

As with the induction sessions, the content and how it is delivered really does matter. It is, for example, not uncommon for leaders, supervisors or safety practitioners to read the safety talk content to their audiences, or to give them the material in soft or hard copy to read themselves! Companies have also been known to simply place safety information on the notice boards! This is not how critical information about the safety of people can or should be conveyed.

Again, companies need to consider whether the time spent each day/week/month/year is achieving the necessary safety objective. The content and its delivery can’t merely be a tick-box exercise to meet certain legal requirements or certifications! Companies need to consider alternatives. For example, perhaps safety engagement sessions, where the focus is on discussing and engaging the audience on various safety topics, rather than a one-way flow of information through a safety talk.

Through such engagement, challenges and/or concerns will surface, together with constructive ideas and potential solutions. These sessions could become platforms for a shared understanding of the issues as well as a shared commitment to possible solutions.

This will, undoubtedly, ensure value-added content, a more effective spend of everyone’s time, greater buy-in to the safety requirements and expectations, and could mean the difference between preventing a repeat incident and ultimately improving the company’s safety performance … or not.

Observe to understand behaviour

Building on the benefits of engagement sessions, leaders also stand to benefit from walking through their respective sites. This presents opportunities to engage with employees (and contractors) on safety matters or simply to observe their safety-related behaviour… and the chances are good that leaders may be surprised at how little of the safety-related information shared during the induction training has been internalised and implemented.

While disappointing, these walks through site can have important benefits, such as highlighting the real safety issues and how the approach to safety training could and should be adjusted.

To demonstrate: I recently visited two different company operations, both with a large number of contractors on site at the time. One site was conducting a large boiler project, while the other was busy with an annual maintenance shutdown. I spent time on both sites, just observing the tasks being conducted by the respective contractors.

On the project site, a contractor was working on scaffolding only one metre off the ground, which had been fitted with all the safety precautions imaginable. These included handrails, knee rails, a fully enclosed platform, and the contractor had attached his safety harness while conducting the work.

By contrast, on the second site contractors were dismantling equipment, with the resultant unprotected drop of more than two metres requiring the use of fall-arrest equipment when walking or working on the platform.

It was pleasing to observe the team correctly using their double-lanyard fall-arrest equipment when walking on the platform. However, not long after that, two team members descended a permanent flight of stairs from the platform to the ground level while attaching their safety harnesses to the handrail of the stairs (instead of holding the handrail throughout their descent).

They may have done this in response to having noticed the safety team in the area, or it may be what they do every time they descend stairs, but it is another example of how employees/contractors can misunderstand the safety rules and/or use of equipment and why the content and method of safety training is so vital.

Summary

For companies to achieve a safe working environment requires an approach that looks at safety equipment, plant, processes and procedures and, importantly, also the behaviour and attitude of everyone on site towards safety.

The full impact can, however, only be achieved when companies adopt a pragmatic, relevant and sensible approach to safety, with a firm focus on what really matters – including hiring the right calibre of safety personnel and developing those already employed to the desired level of competence and understanding. There also needs to be a move towards “understanding through learning”.

The challenge is to shift the safety approach from a crazy one to a committed one – and to focus on those things that are meaningful, practical and add value. This switch from crazy to committed could mean the difference between getting our people home safety every day, preventing a repeat incident and ultimately improving the company’s safety performance … or not.

About The Author

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Brian started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, Brian transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.

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