Empowered Peer Leadership (EPL) Teams generate higher levels of safety performance providing the means to create a sustainable proactive safety culture. Irrespective of the size and scope of the organization’s internal safety staff and its resources, the new Peer Leadership (PL) and Team Empowerment (TE) paradigm, is designed to eliminate the negative barriers to success through the creation of empowered multi-level teams that foster the cooperation needed to leverage an individual’s safety knowledge in a high trust environment.

Communicating this knowledge results in quickly adapted “best practices” that embed safety accountabilities throughout the organization. This may be counter-intuitive to traditional compliance-oriented approaches that typically focus exclusively on regulatory safety issues, missing the unique opportunity to improve the overall safety culture.

Performance expectations
The EPL model was launched in 2001 by a medium-sized aerospace aluminum extrusion company that was seeking to reduce injury frequencies and costs, while promoting a higher level of safety connectivity between its operational processes and its people. Already having realized significant success in quality- and productivity-driven initiatives and milestones; AS9000, ISO9001, Lean, and Boeing Silver Supplier Certifications, Universal Alloy Corporation (UAC) in Anaheim, Calif. began actively searching for a comparable performance solution within the safety arena. The EPL model was the answer.

Step 1 - Measuring the culture is key
The process began by measuring perceptions within the existing organizational safety culture through the ASK Survey instrument. (See sidebar.) The survey measured employee responses concerning the culture perceptions that existed across 15 specific factors. These survey results provided a “benchmark” to use for both current and future comparisons versus the ASK Survey norm database consisting of thousands of responses across hundreds of companies.

Step 2 - Accessing strengths and opportunities
The ASK Survey results served to identify existing organizational strengths and opportunities that could be leveraged in creating the EPL team environment. This information provided a template for identifying and managing the necessary process elements in consideration of the cultural barriers that might slow acceptance of the new safety model.

Step 3 - Selecting and empowering the team
Specific measures were taken to ensure that the team would be largely populated by employees from the essential work areas, and selected first line supervisors. The team’s charter was to proactively focus on the organization’s systems and peer workplace practices that support safety excellence. To foster a truly empowered team environment, management relinquished direct involvement and became accountable to the team as a sponsor, reversing the typical safety management model.

Step 4 - Identifying best practices
The team was trained with the intention of precisely defining and documenting workplace “best practices.” This identification included production tasks as well as office ergonomic exposures within the facility. These best practices went beyond typical staff-led safety programs rooted in regulatory compliance by taking into consideration both environmental conditions and behavior-based perspectives for each of the identified work tasks. Pure regulatory and compliance issues were supported through external consultations, eliminating the everyday need for staff safety resources.

Step 5 - Enacting the EPL model
The leadership model included specific safety elements relating to observation, feedback and positive reinforcement. Team members employed peer “feedback” techniques in conjunction with a vigorous safe observation process. Measuring and reporting on the systematic safety activities and outcomes became crucial for monitoring safety performance and focusing team efforts in a manner consistent with the organization’s other mature quality-driven initiatives.

Application of the EPL performance model required all levels of the organization to purposely focus on using positive recognition and reinforcements, and to encourage and increase safest work practices and choices. This pattern of positive emphasis was also reflected in the various team celebrations that occurred when specific safety milestones were achieved.

Step 6 - Clarifying accountabilities
As the performance model was assimilated into the UAC work culture, it became abundantly clear that injuries did not need to occur, and that “accountability” for keeping employees safe was shared by all levels of the organization. Expectations for managers and non-managers relating to safety activities, support and participation levels were understood and measured.

Management accountability and safety process related metrics were regularly reviewed in both large and small group sessions. These proactive metrics were compared with reactive incident or injury occurrences to improve and calibrate the process. Even the human resources department played a role in ensuring that any and all new hires received first day information and orientation concerning the safety climate to be expected and enjoyed at UAC.

Improved performance & culture change
Results were tracked and analyzed over a four-year period beginning in 2002. The effects were immediate and dramatic within the first year. Prior to the onset of the safety performance training and process, the annual costs associated with workers’ compensation losses at UAC-CA hovered around $700,000. After just 12 months of process implementation and efforts, such costs had already been reduced to less than half that amount; and then dropped to even less the following year to $53,300!

The EPL model synergies spilled over into other key performance areas. During that same period of time, as the workforce headcount surged by more than 30 percent, significant improvements were also realized in other operating areas such as:

• Customer returns reduced 29 percent

• Spoilage down 8 percent

• Productivity increased by 57 percent.

A 2006 ASK re-survey verified that more culture model factors had moved in a positive direction versus the ASK norm, and that the employee perception scores internally had positively increased by more than 18 percent overall. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most significant positive movement had occurred with respect to the factor areas of employee diligence, organizational diligence, and employee development and training.

The EPL team remains intact today. The high-performance process continues to characterize a culture with a slightly different idea of what safety is supposed to be, and who primarily carries it out every day. The direction taken has not only yielded significantly improved results, it has effectively changed the internal safety climate, and the interactions among all levels of the organization.

Says Kevin Loebbaka, general manager of UAC: “As this favorable culture impact expands, we have actually changed people’s beliefs and actions. This process has allowed us a significant sustainable competitive advantage that we otherwise would not have realized.”

Note: UAC partnered with BureauVeritas North America in this application of the EPL performance model.

SIDEBAR: ASK Culture Survey Factors

  • Communication
  • Organizational Diligence
  • Empowerment
  • Reward / Recognition
  • Quality / Continuous Improvement
  • Employee Development & Training
  • Job Security
  • Respect & Treatment of Employees
  • Management Supervisor
  • Teamwork Cooperation
  • Satisfaction with the Company
  • Satisfaction with the Job
  • Physical Working Conditions
  • Stress Workload