Last month I toured eight brick companies from across the United States and got an inside look at their employee health and safety programs. It took less than two hours and I never left my desk.

I was judging via the Internet the Brick Industry Association’s 2009 Employee Health and Safety Awards Competition. Many of you I’m sure have entered these kinds of contests, or thought about it. Sorry, but I can’t tip you off on how to win one of these things. There are no hard and fast standards for judging health and safety programs.

Typically, injury and illness rates, workers’ comp history, and OSHA inspection records figure prominently when a company decides to “go public” with its safety and health program. And you can bet the numbers look good and show marked declines.

Changing times

Employers usually are mum about their safety and health programs, unless they have something to boast about. No employer wants to look like a slacker when it comes to protecting lives. Many fear any public talk about their program might have OSHA inspectors knocking at the door.

But the number of safety and health programs going public is slowly but surely increasing, due to expanding Internet interactivity (customer reviews of restaurants, lodgings, cars, prescription meds, hospitals, and yes, companies to work for), social networking, blogging, and Googling.

Plus, recent business scandals and blunders that have contributed to the worse economy in more than a generation, and the ensuing widespread public distrust of business management motives and priorities, has increased pressure for companies to come clean (to varying degrees) and be transparent (to varying degrees) about their goals, strategies and strengths and weaknesses.

Dos and don’ts

The entries in this year’s Brick Industry Association employee health and safety competition gave me the chance to study how companies describe their health and safety efforts in this day of closer public scrutiny. Here are five dos and don’ts to consider when going public with your program:
  • Don’t rest your laurels solely on injury and illness rates and a clean compliance slate with OSHA. These outcomes can be as much a matter of random chance as hard work. Also, recordkeeping outcomes are subject to skepticism. Companies putting up goose eggs, all zeroes, for lost-time and total recordable injuries in a year might trigger questions about recordkeeping accuracy and under-reporting, especially if the company is also highlighting an incentive program that offers bonuses to managers and employees for no injuries.

  • Be honest. The best entry I reviewed in the BIA’s contest was the most open and honest. It described a series of efforts over a number of years to improve safety awareness. “Giveaways” such as coolers and flashlights didn’t work because “the focus was on the award, not on working safely.” Fewer, more expensive awards required the entire plant to perform safely, taking an award out of the individual’s control. Finally, a decision was made to eliminate awards and go with spontaneous and personal recognition, such as the plant manager flipping burgers at a free lunch held for reaching a safety goal.

  • Don’t focus on only one piece of the puzzle. “Spontaneous recognition” got employees more engaged, but not enough to bring about the broad culture change this company desired. Their award entry also described: 1) a multi-year training system adopted for managers and supervisors; 2) the need for managers to “teach” their direct reports what they learned in the classroom to “learn for a second time;” 3) a 24-hour incident reporting requirement; 4) a post-incident work stoppage procedure; 5) a zero-tolerance policy for lockouttagout infractions; and 6) a “Think” program requiring every employee to complete a form on a daily basis prior to working.

  • Use story-telling. Describe your best practices, your culture, your successes and failures in the framework of a story. Don’t simply offer bullet points listing your program’s elements and outcomes.

    The best entry I reviewed in the BIA competition had a plot line with a beginning point, twists and turns, surprises, employee and management actions and reactions, and a concluding summary. Along the arc of this narrative you learned who (plant managers, supervisors, employees) did what (training, risk assessments, reporting, etc.) to try to improve the culture; when these activities occurred (specific years); where (the shop floor, classrooms, luncheons, etc.); how (use of conference calls, daily tool box talks, the stop-and-think process, etc.); and why (to address employee attitudes such as, “Where’s my free flashlight?” and “You really want us to meet quotas and take risks if we have to.”)

  • Be a teacher. Taking your health and safety program public — via a contest entry or PowerPoint presentation at a professional conference or a web site annual report — is more than an opportunity to win recognition for achievements or commitments. Again, the best BIA contest entry I read concluded with a long list of lessons learned. And they were not all positives. “Small gifts and free doughnuts don’t stop accidents.” “Written policies and procedures are not enough.” “You must ‘walk the talk’ at every step.” “Changing a culture does not occur overnight.” “You have to work on keeping it ‘fresh’ every day.”

    Going public with your health and safety program must be more than a PR exercise to earn trust and credibility with your target audience(s). Be honest and “real.” Do more than recite dry facts and statistics. Be creative. And show a sincere interest in using your story to help your web site visitors, contest competitors, or meeting presentation attendees — no just impress them.