Recently, I did some health and safety “due diligence” consulting work for a client who wanted to acquire a small, 65-employee business. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with supervisors and employees and touring the facility and was struck by two important findings: this small company didn’t have much by way of written programs that supported health and safety regulatory compliance AND it had a remarkably good safety record -- one that much larger companies would envy.

The other impression I walked away with was that this company had a very “caring” culture. For example, company management hired several former gang members and supported their pursuit of new and better lives. Supervisors had opportunities to interact with their employees many times over the course of a day. (Actually, this was hard to avoid in this small company!)  Relatives of employees were hired, and this seemed to serve as a built-in accountability boost. Some employees expressed the sense that, with regard to their workplace behaviors and performance, they answered not just to their supervisor and teammates, but to their father, mother, sister, or uncle. The caring in this company was palpable. And it started at the top. The company’s top leader had owned it for more than 40 years and employees felt like family to him. It was clear that their well-being was important to him.

Spending time at this company reminded me of what I’ve read about Alcoa, when Paul O’Neill (also a former Treasury Secretary) headed it up. O’Neill’s strategy to fix an ailing Alcoa culture (and financial performance) was to focus on Safety as something that would bring people together, change how they worked and how they communicated. O’Neill announced a goal of zero injuries. Any time someone was injured, the relevant Alcoa unit president had to report it to O’Neill with 24 hours and present a plan to ensure the accident was never repeated. As Charles Duhigg describes in his book, The Power of Habit, “To contact O’Neill within twenty-four hours of an injury, they needed to hear about an accident from their vice presidents as soon as it happened. So vice presidents needed to be in constant communication with floor managers. And floor managers needed to get workers to raise warnings as soon as they saw a problem and keep a list of suggestions nearby, so that when the vice president asked for a plan, there was an idea box already full of possibilities.”

Effectively, O’Neill shrunk the company with this communication requirement. Unit presidents, vice presidents, floor managers, and workers needed to move closer to each other to communicate both problems (incidents resulting in injuries) and potential solutions. The creation of a workplace that felt and acted much smaller than it was not only improved safety performance at the company, but quality, productivity, and profitability as well.

The company I was assessing was small; it felt like family. The message from supervisors to employees was loud and clear:  “I care about your safety.” The message from co-workers was equally clear:  “You’re part of my team. I don’t want you to get hurt.” This message started at the top, just as it did at Alcoa, and permeated the company culture. Some of the take-away lessons from my work with this small company include:

  • Employees notice and respond to what seems important to their supervisors, managers, and top management.
  • Daily contact with one’s supervisor around safety issues may be as important to the evolution of a strong safety culture classroom safety training or watching a video on one’s desktop.
  • A sense of “caring” goes a long way in employee safety, increasing compliance with safety requirements.
  • A sense of close community helps keep employees accountable for their workplace behaviors.

Most EHS professionals work for medium to large companies; small companies typically can’t support an in-house safety person, but instead hire occasional consultants. For those of us who work in medium and large companies, here’s the challenge:  How can this sense of caring and community be cultivated and transmitted in our own companies? Do we have leaders who are willing to personally champion safety and authentically carry the message: “I care about your safety”?

Perhaps we need to educate company leaders about the benefits of a strong safety culture for overall company well-being. Maybe we can work our way onto top management meeting agendas, updating senior leaders on ongoing incident investigations and safety performance on a routine basis. In the area of safety training, maybe we can support supervisors with resource materials (safety tips and messages) they can use to build onto classroom or online safety training. What ways can we think of to make large workplaces feel like smaller, more caring communities? I welcome your thoughts and ideas.