This article is excerpted from the book, Delivering Safety Excellence: Engagement Culture at Every Level, published June, 2021, John Wiley & Sons. The narrative is based on the author’s real-world experiences with safety culture turnarounds (people’s names have been changed).

Aaron is physically sick to his stomach as he attends the funeral of a 37-year employee who fell to his death at work on the past weekend. Aaron is the organization’s recently appointed safety manager. He’s come up through the ranks with little safety training. His organization is large, with more than 1,000 employees, but there is minimal safety emphasis. Aaron works with a part-time administrative assistant, one safety resource taken from the frontline, and two safety trainers. Safety is chronically under-resourced and not supported by upper management. Aaron is trapped in the role of playing safety cop in a company culture that emphasizes blame and punishment when there is an injury or mistake.

After taking the safety job, Aaron hired a consultant, the “Doc,” to interview more than 100 hourly and salaried personnel in honest discussions about the organization’s safety culture. The Doc’s written report was full of painful truths and ugly facts. Injuries were typically hidden; workers were afraid to speak up; only lip-service was paid to safety; and after several years with no fatalities or disabling injuries, the just-retired CEO left a weak, discredited safety department and an associated weak safety culture. As a result, the company was complacent about safety and years behind what industry leaders were doing to address and prevent injuries. The old, tired, compliance-focused approach of the 1970s was still the norm.

After the funeral, Aaron is back at work, reading and “digesting” the Doc’s report. It all seems so hopeless. The company has been in business for more than 70 years and is one of the top 25 in the North American continent when measured by sales volume. Yet it has had a Recordable Injury Frequency (RIF) of greater than ten for more than a decade.  Company leadership was in denial, doing the same things repeatedly and hoping for different results.

A committed professional

Aaron could be angry, vindictive, subversive – or quit and find a real and far less stressful job somewhere else. But he decides to hold himself accountable for his responsibilities, resolve the safety issues, and carry on a dialog with the new CEO and his staff in order to significantly reduce injuries and incidents and construct a new culture based on new values.

He knows he’s in for a battle. Out of frustration, he reaches in and pulls out the Doc’s business card that has collected dust in the dark inner reaches of his desk. He dials the Doc’s phone number and engages in the first of many conversations with the Doc with the objective of improving the company’s safety culture and stopping the inexcusable injuries.

For starters, Aaron and the Doc use an Action Item Matrix (AIM) to list more than 150 safety condition shortfalls and develop an ROI Matrix to prioritize items in a “plan of attack.” Finding and fixing is only part of the turnaround plan. Aaron wants to develop interactive, original training that satisfies OSHA requirements and engages both hourly employees and management. “Great, but how am I going to pull this off?” he says to himself. “I have no significant safety budget, no frontline or upper management involvement in safety, and a cadre of strong resisters/cavemen who roadblock my attempts for safety improvement.”

Aaron stares at two realities: he must sell and win over the new CEO and the executive team; and he’s embarking on a marathon journey of changing existing safety approaches and standard practices that won’t build the culture he envisions.

After a day spent with the Doc doing an on-site walk-around of departments and field operations, Aaron begins to grasp the real issue confronting him: the absence of any real efforts to improve fundamental safety processes and the lack of accountabilities for anybody, other than Aaron – “the safety guy.”

Roadmap for excellence

A meeting for coffee at the Doc’s hotel centered on the development of a roadmap for delivering safety excellence that aligned with the work of two organizational innovators: Dr. Dan Petersen and Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Dr. Dan emphasized accountabilities and surveying employee perceptions. Dr. Deming created the six sigma quality excellence model. The Doc presented Aaron with six levels of safety to work through:

  • Level 1 – Take care of compliance issues, work orders, and investigations to eliminate at-risk conditions. This is the absolute foundation of a culture of safety excellence.
  • Level 2 – Work with your eyes open and your brain engaged to recognize hazards and prioritize risks through tools such as job safety analyses and near miss investigations.
  • Level 3 – Conduct an organization-wide survey to quantify the percentage of employees at all levels who use the correct safety-related activities to develop a profile of strengths and weaknesses of the safety culture.
  • Level 4 – A volunteer leadership Safety Steering Team (SST) is required to work on the weak points of the culture. The SST meets monthly in day-long sessions to develop a strategic multi-year plan to attack gaps that need filling. Training topics for all levels of employees include safety, culture, creative problem-solving, effective frontline communication, and positive recognition.
  • Level 5 – Proactive safety duties – accountabilities – are assigned at all levels for “what you can count on me to do safely and correctly all the time that will reduce the possibility of injuries.”
  • Level 6 – Safety accountabilities create motivated leadership, active participation, ownership and deeply shared values for safety excellence that are sustained throughout the organization by continuous improvement solution teams and the SST.

Overcoming resistance

Aaron now has a step-by-step practical plan. He also immediately runs into active resistance -- nay sayers, change haters, obstinate obstructers, etc. He calls the Doc to see if this chunk of culture turnaround is even remotely possible of being solved. After the call, Aaron resolves to have thicker skin, to shake off the barbs, and begin a dialog with his boss about pushing the limits to turn around the weak safety culture. He will learn to define his boss’s “mental comfort zone” when it comes to safety by realizing how far he can push his boss to “stay in the game” for this cultural turnaround, and for support and funding.

From the Doc’s counsel Aaron learns that delivering safety excellence never happens overnight. Or in a year. In fact, the first year is rugged, always rugged. After culture improvement becomes part of the organization’s every day working culture, more and more of the personnel become engaged in fixing issues and delivering solutions by eating the “safety elephant” one bite at a time. As more people share the load, the time required of senior leaders lessens – except when emergencies arise. But as more problems are solved and the improved safety culture is sustained, fewer emergencies will occur.

Turnaround toolbox

With the Doc’s help, Aaron is armed with a set of practical tools to begin the culture improvement process:

  • Diagnostics (perception surveys, one-on-one safety contacts, etc.) to identify what needs to be worked on according to the employees
  • A Safety Steering Team (SST) of volunteers to decide on and develop long-term strategic priorities
  • Rapid Improvement Workshops (RIW) made up of volunteers to tackle one to three initiatives each year
  • 60-day field-tested pilot improvement projects based on the RIW output
  • Expand improvement solutions to other departments and sites once tested and proven effective
  • The SST monitors the progress of each RIW and the pilot trials, and launches new RIWs as needed
  • The SST issues an overarching Purpose, Outcomes, Process (POP) statement; POPs are also used by RIWs and continuous improvement (CI) teams
  • The Action Item Matrix (AIM) is the to-do list capturing what needs to be done by when and by whom
  • Aaron benefits greatly from learning the how and flow of these leading cultural improvement initiatives.

For example:  

  • Aaron and his engaged team have identified their pitfalls and weaknesses;
  • The Doc has trained the team in the use of processes to fix these dangerous shortfalls;
  • Based on their past failures Aaron’s team knows the extreme dangers of complacency of not pursuing safety culture excellence; and
  • Best of all, they have learned how to be “delivering safety excellence: engagement culture at every level.”  It is now time to engage and produce a new culture in this challenging journey to world class safety

Aaron then writes down the rules of engagement for their use. He knows pitfalls are certain to happen on the journey of turning around his sick safety culture. And it will, indeed, be a marathon, not a sprint. But with the Doc’s help, Aaron has the company’s board of directors, CEO, and legal counsel signing off on the proposed improvement plan strategy with no time limit. His CEO smiles as the team of executives along with the Safety Steering Team begins their first training session.

The entire dynamic of Aaron’s organization is changing in front of his eyes.


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