Complacency can be your reward for success in workplace health and safety. Consider this email from a subscriber:

“We are a small construction company involved with drilling, blasting, crushing, and road building. Manpower fluctuates between 70 to 150 employees.

“We have had dramatic reductions in our accidents and compensation costs, and our external safety audits have given us the highest ratings in our province.”

So what’s the problem?

“Complacency. Top management is satisfied with the status quo, and supervisors and employees only do what is required. I see more short cuts being taken.

“Plus, we are experiencing too many ‘close calls,’ but supervisors and employees are not overly concerned as long as no one gets hurt.

“Sooner or later we will have a very serious accident unless this attitude changes. What can I do as safety manager to fight complacency?”

Call it safety’s back-handed compliment. “The longer a successful safety program has been in effect, the less important or relevant its seems,” says Nancy Leveson of Safeware Engineering.

Idling along?

Our subscriber is far from alone. Many work sites are safer than ever. Work-related injury rates in the U.S. have been sliced in half in the past 30 years, from 11.0 total cases per 100 full-time workers in 1973 to 5.3 in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (OSHA recordkeeping practices changed in 2002, making direct comparisons somewhat inconsistent.)

But there is certainly room for improvement. OSHA inspectors in the mid-1990s ran a pilot program where they assigned ratings to work sites they visited. Scoring safety and health programs on a scale of 1 (non-existent or ineffective) to 5 (outstanding), most programs earned a 3 — described as a “basic” level of performance.

That jives with consultant Richard MacLean’s assessment of corporate EHS strategies. The most common: Do only what’s necessary to keep things running; just meet the law; and follow the competition.

In this article, experts show you how to shake companies out of a maintenance mind set. Snap a wet towel at complacency. “Safety leaders create dissatisfaction with the status quo,” said Gene Earnest, a former Procter & Gamble safety manager. “That’s your job.”

Reporting pressure

“We had the same problem,” says Jeff Meddin, CSP, CHMM.

Here’s how the corporate safety director for RailWorks Corporation attacked safety smugness: First, he put in place a “Supervisor’s 24-hour Report.” Close calls, accidents, incidents involving damage to equipment or third-party contractors all had to be reported by email or fax to the CEO, corporate safety director and all managers in between corporate and the first-level supervisor.

Top managers and the corporate safety department periodically call the supervisor who filed the report using the phone or cell number listed on the form. “This lets everyone know that the close calls are being looked at and reporting them is a corporate priority,” says Jeff.

To keep the spotlight on safety, incident briefings (no matter how minor) are the first agenda item on all group teleconferences and management meetings.

“It works,” says Jeff.

Going transparent

Gary Rosenblum, CIH, knows something about keeping safety fresh in a small operation with limited turnover. He’s the risk manager for the city of Palm Desert, south of Palm Springs in California, managing 145 employees, many of whom have been on the city payroll for years.

“The advantage of a small program is it’s very hands-on and personal,” he says. Gary likes to show up on a job and if all’s well, as it usually is, he sends a note to the supervisor saying he was there and what a good safety job the guys were doing.

Circulate. Pop in and out. “Practice the ‘One-Minute Manager’,” says Barry Weissman, CSP. Tell employees you’ll be dropping in. Catch ’em doing something right and praise it on the spot (or correct it if it’s something unsafe).

Rosenblum also emphasizes reporting. “I put in an instant e-report system for all incidents that result in either a first aid or more serious event, or property damage of any kind. I encourage reporting for almost anything out of the ordinary.” For a while employees would call first and ask, “Do I report this?” Fire away, he’d say. “I always ask for a report. It needs to be simple and easy. You want the message to get out that management is interested in knowing what’s happening.”

To avoid showing the same old videos every year, Rosenblum changes out his training video library using an annual rental process.

He asks his safety committee to make small changes in the safety award program each year. Sometimes the prize changes, sometimes the award criteria change. Last year everyone got a free city logo shirt after sustaining only one lost-time injury. Next year it will be a Starbucks gift certificate.

Rosenblum believes in safety performance transparency — letting everyone know how you’re doing. He sold his managers on it (“it isn’t hard for a municipality where we are required by law to provide so much information to the public”) and you can find the city’s OSHA 300 summary on the Internet.

“Eventually we will be placing more leading indicators out on the Web site for the public to see,” he says.

Beyond accidents

How you measure your safety performance can create false security and over-confidence — or it can keep people hustling.

The subscriber’s organization appears to focus on a metric — accident statistics — “that masks the realities of what is going on in real time,” says consultant Tom Drake of The Drake Group.

Leading indicators of how you are performing in safety are limited only by your imagination — and your capacity for paperwork and numbers-crunching.

Perception surveys push you past after-the-fact injury stats to give you a dose of what employees really think about what’s going on. Survey employees, supervisors and management levels to discover gaps in perceptions about your safety program.

Many leading indicators are expressed in percentage terms. Here are a handful from metrics being developed by Organization Resources Counselors:

  • Percentage of managers and supervisors who lead safety initiatives;
  • Percentage of safety meetings with leadership participation;
  • Percentage of supervisors and managers with written safety roles and responsibilities;
  • Number of safety goals accomplished versus total number of safety goals in business plan;
  • Percentage of incidents investigated per year;
  • Percentage of hazards corrected versus total number of hazards identified;
  • Percentage of safety suggestions acted upon versus total number of suggestions received;
  • Percentage of safe behaviors observed versus total observations;
  • Percentage of employees involved in activities such as safety committees, audits, training and job safety analyses.

Track these percentages year to year to gage how vital your safety activities are, and how far your activities penetrate all levels of your organization.

Rocking the recliners

A few more suggestions for shaking people out of their easy chairs:

1) Don’t forget to have some fun. Take a page from the best-seller “FISH!”. The authors saw employees in rubber boots and white aprons at Pike Place Fish market in Seattle tossing salmon over counters, juggling crabs, generally acting like stand-up comics, and turned it into a book on the benefits of play and creativity at work. Safety activities easily lend themselves to creative applications of fun.

2) Get out and about. “Insularity is a growing threat to the safety culture of the nuclear industry,” said the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a 2001 speech. That’s true of any safety culture. Don’t believe you have a lock on best practices. Find new partners to benchmark.

3) Broaden your focus beyond the day to day. “Have you developed a five-year plan for safety?” asks Mark Hansen, CSP, of The St. Paul Company. “This gives you a road map for the future.” Do you produce an annual safety report? “If not, start now,” says Hansen. Model it after your company’s annual report. Organize and analyze safety’s contributions to your organization’s business goals.

“Safety improves management-labor relations,” says consultant Dan Petersen. “You also use it to push employee involvement. It’s super not only for safety, but for quality, morale, productivity. We haven’t communicated this well. We’ve kept a low profile with management. I think it has something to do with wanting to protect our mystique in safety.”

You can’t fight complacency from inside a cocoon. Now, with the “numbers” looking good and companies feeling no pressure, safety needs to come out swinging and show what it’s worth.

SIDEBAR: Pride is the ultimate motivator

What’s the point of investing more bucks in safety when your rates are already good enough, according to industry averages, OSHA data, peer benchmarks, etc.?

Fear, greed or pride could be three reasons, according to Pat McDonnell, a former VP of Coopers & Lybrand.

The fear argument: You won’t get better doing business the same way. Your competition is using safety to build better operational efficiency. What are you doing about it?

This can get managers’ attention, but only for so long, says McDonnell. You can also be accused of crying wolf. Fear and threats are a short-term ploy, he says. The greed argument: We have an opportunity here. Excellence will differentiate us from our competitors.

Another pitch with a short life-span, says McDonnell. Plus, greed is not team-oriented, he adds.

Pride is the ultimate motivator, according to McDonnell. Organizations that pride themselves in integrity, teamwork, respect and accountability will go the extra mile for safety — or any other aspect of business, he says.

Bechtel Corporation’s VP of EHS Services Kevin Berg quotes a plant superintendent: “I’ve got a son working at this site. The only goal is zero incidents. One in a million hours? That one person is not going to be my son.”

If he wasn’t clear enough, Berg quotes Will Rogers: “Even if you’re on the right track you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”