How to play (& win) at safety hardball

September 24, 2009
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If safety and health pros want to step up and assume leadership positions in their organizations (and why shouldn't they?), maybe it's time to play a little hardball.

No bully ball First, we need to own up to the bad images "hardball" connotes. We're not talking about rock 'em, sock 'em win-at-any-cost safety programs.

You know, dragging an employee in from home with a broken leg suffered at work and propping her up in a corner to keep an injury-free streak alive.

We're not talking about bullying or intimidating employees into following rules or not reporting injuries.

Or bringing a chainsaw into your next safety meeting to show workers how you're going to slash workers' comp costs.

No. We're talking about a mental approach to the safety job. To safety goals and objectives. We're talking about a mind set.

Think of Lance Armstrong's passion, focus and determination.

Let's face it, in many organizations safety is competing with other departments for resources, for a place on management's agenda, for an opportunity to demonstrate its value beyond compliance. We're talking about directing your passion, focus and determination to succeed in this arena.

No softball To take your safety program in the opposite direction is playing softball. Softball in business is drifting along doing the same old same old.

It's cruise control. Like sitting in a comfortable easy chair, rerunning the same safety training videos every year. Recycling the same meeting topics. Holding safety committee meetings once a month just to say you've done it.

It's disguising poor or mediocre performance (such as injury and illness rates or audit findings) with activities. "But look boss, we're running an incentive contest. Doing weekly inspections. Holding meetings. Playing bingo. We've got the fire chief coming in to give a talk. Got safety orientations and hazmat refreshers! Our new posters look good. How about that banner out front?"

But what ties these activities together — and to company goals? Where's the plan? How do they relate to providing the organization with a competitive advantage?

What it is Here's how you know when you're playing safety hardball:

Focus on the realities of your work environment. You know what the attitudes, perceptions and beliefs about your safety program are — from employee, supervisor and manager viewpoints.

If you need to compete more vigorously to win the hearts and minds of employees, supers and managers, you ruthlessly evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses as a safety leader. And you evaluate your current safety program the same way.

Be decisive about what needs to be done. You build on your strengths, both personally and programmatically, and you go to work on weak areas.

Create discomfort. Former Procter & Gamble safety manager Gene Earnest called it creating dissonance within the organization. Let people know about weak links in the safety program — vulnerabilities. Show what is possible to achieve, in terms of a safety culture and the safety performance of best-in-class companies.

Become wholly committed to channeling your passion and expertise to reaching your goals.

Engage everyone in this quest. You're clear and direct about responsibilities and accountability — what the safety committee must do, what supervisors and managers must do, what the workforce does. Everyone knows what's expected of them, how their contributions will be measured, and how achievements will be recognized.

Maintain everyone's focus on your high expectations — whether it's improving audit scores, injury rates, or going for OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program status. Your energy and pace are aggressive and demanding.

Play by the rules. Moral, ethical and legal lines are never crossed.

Use all available resources and strategies to achieve your objectives. You find your safety allies in the organization. People with expertise, connections, and sales power.

Be vigilant in monitoring progress toward goals. Safety is not a desk job for you. You're out on the floor, out in the field, observing, coaching, asking questions, listening, taking it all in.

Strike a balance This last characteristic is worth elaborating on. Good coaches in the sports world know how to play hardball to win, but at the same time they know they can't alienate the team.

It's a balancing act.

You can play hardball, attack your job with laser-like focus, and still be empathetic. And use that empathy to build essential relationships with employees, supervisors, managers and your safety committee and coaches.

One of the rules in business hardball is this: understand your customers. Dictators don't win over customers. Safety zealots don't win over hearts and minds in an organization and achieving sustainable success — however you want to define it.

It takes aggressive research and planning. Focused, measurable goals. Reality checks. Clear, direct communication. High standards that lead to pride of accomplishment.

Another baseball season is upon us. Ready to play a little hardball?

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