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'We're different here'

August 30, 2001
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During my first ten years in the environmental health and safety profession, I visited thousands of different businesses - essentially a different business every day. As a consultant conducting safety and industrial hygiene surveys, I talked to everyone from people pushing brooms to CEOs. One phrase resonated throughout these conversations - "We're different here." - with the implication that traditional safety management techniques wouldn't work.

I believed it, at least the first hundred or so times I heard it. After a while, I learned to just acknowledge the sentiment while continuing to probe. I tried to ignore the differences and focus on the similarities of clients' safety programs in order to deliver safety and health management assistance.

After years of telling others how to manage safety and health, I wanted to do it myself, and spent the next ten years directing corporate safety and health for two very global (and now very safe) corporations. Looking back, I was also guilty of believing (wrongly) that some safety management techniques wouldn't work in my specific industry.

Minor variances

In fact, the differences in an excellence-driven safety management process are not that great, whether you're in a semiconductor fabrication clean room, an underground mine, a hospital, a petrochemical plant, a research facility, or a trucking company.

Focusing on how different your industry is from others is really buying into an excuse, rather than identifying possible reasons for inferior safety and health performance. Even worse, believing that traditional safety management techniques won't work in a specific industry can lead to a death spiral when managers start taking the position that "we're so different and complicated here that no answers to our EHS problems can come from outside of our own industry."

When cross-industry benchmarking and learning cease, improvement becomes incremental at best. If a step-change in safety is truly desired, step out of your own industry.

Every aspect of the fundamentals of safety management will work at your plant and in your industry, if they are implemented within a robust, but not too complicated, management system. And then people and other resources must be provided to allow the system to work.

So what may or may not be different in various organizations and industries? Let's take a look.

What is different

Culture - Organizations have different values (although many do run parallel). Internationally, cultural differences abound, and it remains a serious issue. EHS issues can be addressed in any culture, but perhaps not by the process initially utilized.

Bureaucracy - Some organizations have too much hierarchy, others too little. The EHS process needs to be compatible with the level of bureaucracy that is tolerated or desired.

Operations - Organizations have different production/service processes and activities. EHS processes must address the majority of commonalities specific to all industries, plus the extremely few that are industry-specific.

Regulations - OSHA and EPA rules are common to many U.S. firms, but the degree of government or organizational oversight must be planned for in the structure of EHS management processes. For international operations, compliance with local regulations is crucial, while applying voluntary best practice standards is clearly the model to strive for.

Degree of EHS integration - Environmental, health and safety functions have more in common in some industries than in others. One of the key limiting factors of EHS integration (there is no one best way to do it) is that it's tough to find people who are really good in all three aspects of safety, health and environment.

What is not different

EHS fundamentals - EHS today is a profession (actually three professions) with a body of knowledge unique to its professional practice. Many technical environmental and health roles across American industry can be done best by those with a good foundation in the hard sciences. But health and safety practitioners are well served by a foundation in some softer ones as well.

People - A premise of the behavioral safety movement is this: Focus on making equipment safe to reduce injuries a little; focus on making people behave safely and injuries are reduced a lot. People are people, and they behave in very predictable manners regardless of whether they are Nobel Laureate scientists in San Francisco, production workers in Nebraska, or underground miners in Zimbabwe.

Organization managers - Managers care about EHS, but it is not the only thing they have to deal with. They need EHS people to identify what can be improved, suggest a workable long-term solution, and show flexibility regarding how the solution is implemented in the short and long term.

SIDEBAR: Searching for excellence?

Hire the best and the brightest. Don't get hung up on specific industry experience. Health and safety management skills transfer more readily across industries than most managers realize. EHS professional skills, good judgment, and emotional intelligence come either naturally, with experience, or a combination of both.

Guard against excuses. Recognize that it's a basic human desire to think of yourself, your workgroup, or company as somehow distinguished from the rest. Don't allow this notion to block better EHS results.

Identify your needs. Give serious thought to the health and safety core competencies that your company really needs. These days, safety is a lot more about management than it is about engineering.

Don't rely on common sense. Safety in most companies is an excellent developmental role for operations managers. But many companies make the move without providing any professional development training. Nothing is worse for the safety efforts of a company (or more demoralizing to its EHS technical staff) than a manager who thinks EHS is "just common sense." Send operations people off to a series of EHS courses first. Better yet, continue to have a true EHS technical professional in charge, and let your operations manager do a "special project" for EHS.

Set zero as your goal. Any other goal is not the right goal. Getting there quickly works great for equipment, material and production process changes, but not very well for people. Any change that involves people can take up to several years.

Know your hazards. Materials vary by industry. Focus specific control programs on materials that are particularly toxic.

Implement systems. Without safety and/or health and/or environmental management systems, a large organization won't be as safe as it can be, you won't provide a vehicle for persons outside the EHS staff to give you help, and all of your hard work will fail to live on after you're gone.

Be flexible. Local culture in international operations can significantly affect your ability to evoke positive EHS change. Provide goals and outcomes desired, and suggested best practice processes, but remain flexible in how the local culture implements your plan.

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