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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Don't get hung up on the numbers

June 1, 2007
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One theme that struck the ISHN staff while we reviewed the “Safety That Soars” contest entries from around the country (see page 26, June issue) is this: There sure are a lot of dedicated people trying to get this safety thing right. It’s heartening to hear from the heartland.

The diversity of people responsible for managing safety is striking — old hands, newcomers, part-timers, a good number of women, department heads, corporate types, employees who have taken on safety leadership roles.

So is the diversity of the titles given for the job — Safety Services Assistant; Environmental Health and Safety Manager; Corporate Safety Manager; Safety, Environment & Quality; Safety Team Leader; Director of Safety and Human Resources; Health, Safety and Environment Site Services Coordinator; Process Operator and SAFE team leader; Senior Technician; Administrative Manager, and the list goes on.

Firms fighting the good fight for safety come in all shapes and sizes — 2,200 employees at a medical center, 700 at a shipyard, 80 at a fabricated metals shop, 158 in a General Electric office environment, 1,700 at a national construction company, 30 at a city scrap and salvage operation.

Getting creative
The diversity of activities, ideas, processes, systems, and program approaches also impresses. It strikes you that after 35+ years of complying with OSHA rules, many outfits are much more creative and resourceful about safety than simply following what the feds say.

A Mobile shipyard instituted a program it calls “ORA” for Ownership, Responsibility and Accountability. A General Electric energy operation in Nevada has a site Risk Elimination and Mitigation Program. A construction firm uses a hand-held, PC-based data collection device to record inspections, observations and to identify and correct unsafe acts and conditions. A GE Control Solutions facility in Colorado surveys the safety perceptions of its workforce and reviews results in “Voice of the Employee” sessions. A gypsum operation conducts audits comprised of more than 700 questions. A small injection-molding shop in Atlanta has an “Above & Beyond traveling trophy” as they call it, with associates deciding who is worthy of the honor, based on work actions or deeds during the month.

I’m sure you’ll note OSHA does not mandate “Voice of the Employee” meetings, 700-question audit reports, or employee perception surveys. It’s called going beyond compliance, and it is definitely cause for optimism that so many firms are no longer of the mind that safety begins and ends with OSHA.

Common threads
Our “Safety That Soars” competition certainly gives evidence of safety’s diverse personality. But the ISHN staff also found common threads running through the entries. For example, companies might have safety visions and mission statements and philosophies of varying lengths and detail, using plain speaking or grandiose platitudes. But we learned they all basically boil down to the same thing: safety must be accepted, integrated, operationalized, lived every day — choose your words — as a value.

Now how a company, its execs, supervisors, employees, temps, subcontractors, etc. manages to pull this off is why you have safety competitions. Solicit for creative, innovative ideas and processes that seem to be working, throw the spotlight on the best of them, and spread the word.

It was indeed striking how many times the word “value” popped up in entry forms. I don’t think we would’ve seen this 10-15 years ago. It’s evidence that safety is getting more sophisticated than dotting OSHA “i’s” and crossing the ‘t’s.” It shows safety getting in line with mainstream business thinking. The emphasis on safety as a value proposition was another of the heartening themes we took away from the entries. Now just walk the talk.

Eyes on the prize
At least 11 of the entries had lost-time injury rates of zero for the most recent year on record. Time and again we read entries telling us how much a source of pride this “reaching zero” was for the organization. One company had gone five million hours without a lost-time incident. Another hadn’t had one since 1987, 20 years ago.

Safety is so diverse in so many ways, injury rates are the only universally accepted benchmark for making comparisons. And as evidenced by our “Safety That Soars” entries, people love talking about them — when they can talk about them positively. But there’s a danger in putting such a weighty emphasis on the numbers. The more significance attached to the prize, so to speak, the more tempting it is to make those numbers look good to win that prize, benchmark study, industry award, whatever. Of course there are many diverse and resourceful ways to make this happen, too.

This note of caution is not in any way meant to take away from the accomplishments of the companies we reviewed. What’s positive is that many of these operations measure their safety performance with a so-called “dashboard” of metrics, not Dr. Scott Geller’s famous (or infamous) “body count.” This is another sign of safety’s maturing sophistication.

Beyond the rates
One GE facility tracks the number of hazards identified and then eliminated or mitigated by manufacturing personnel. Another itemized the number of adjustable office workstations and flat screen computer monitors installed. The construction firm mentioned earlier uses PC technology to track inspections, observations of safe and at-risk behaviors, and the number of unsafe conditions identified and corrected. The office complex mentioned earlier tracks employee perceptions of safety, and follows up to make sure problems are taken care of. The medical center in southern Ohio measures the performance of its “Safety Champion” leaders by environmental tour survey results, patient falls, opinion surveys, workers’ comp expenses, safety goals met, and yes, number of injuries.

Injuries must be accounted for (and no bogus accounting methods please). But as our “Safety That Soars” contestants show, there’s so much more you can do to protect your people and enhance your company’s value. The safety department does not need to serve solely as an arm of accounting. Safety is more than a counting and rating game, and a growing number of organizations are wise to the many possibilities and opportunities to soar with safety.

— Dave Johnson, Editor, djsafe@bellatlantic.net

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