I've been doing my formal behavioral safety audits for about six months now and it doesn't always feel like I'm adding value," said the health and safety manager for two of our divisions in California. "Are you sure this process is worth us continuing?"

I hear this question often. In fact, I've asked it myself on a few occasions. After all, I'm championing a safety process where 90 percent of the time audits show employees are working safely. So what's the point?

Unexpected answers

Let me tell you about the lesson I learned not long ago. I was working my way through a formal audit. Everything was checking out 'safe.' Then I asked the question, "Have you bumped into anyone in the hallway intersections in the last week?"

"I've run into people twice in the last week," this employee answered, tears suddenly welling up in her eyes. "I've had a deadline the last two weeks for my project due tomorrow. This isn't a good time for a safety audit."

"Actually, it's a good time for you to be thinking more about your own safety," I said. But, really, I didn't know how to deal with her emotions. So I went on to my final question, "Have you felt any unusual and unexpected pain caused by or aggravated by work?"

She began crying, big time. This was a person caught between a deadline and caring for her own safety. "Yes, for the first time in my career I'm feeling pain in my arm," she finally said.

We talked about taking breaks, moving back the deadline, getting more resources, but her deadline was one day away. The damage had been done. But my administrative support had an idea, and a good one: The next day - 'Deadline Day' - I brought her flowers with a note telling her she was valued, and how we hoped she was keeping safety on her mind.

Lessons learned

Three weeks later I saw this employee again. The pain in her arm had subsided. She had met her deadline - at a cost to safety.

This one incident offered several lessons - about the need to change corporate culture, and the need for individual responsibility.

But the biggest lesson I learned was that it takes just one experience when you're in the right place at the right time to make up for the 90 percent of the time when it seems like nothing is happening.

It's an illusion, this perception that 90 percent of the time there is nothing that needs my help. Whenever you stop to ask questions, listen, and observe you're making a difference. These simple acts of caring are noticed. This is how organizations are changed, through thousands of conversations over long periods of time. Remember, the act of caring itself is a service worthy of your commitment.

By Bob Veazie, production manager, and corporate-wide behavioral safety team leader for a Fortune 500 manufacturer.