My mom and dad took a mission trip to Thailand after the tsunami of 2004 that took 230,000 lives in 14 countries and affected so many others.  My mom was a schoolteacher and my father a pastor/professor.  When they came back they spoke of many things from this far away land.  One that stuck with me was a picture they took in a village they visited.  What caught my attention was the tops of the houses that had metal rebar sticking out toward the sky. 

My immediate concern was for the children and the hazard the rebar could pose if they played on the flat roofs of these houses.  My dad said these people dreamed of a better life with more prosperity.  They built their houses with the rebar sticking out so, in the future when life is better, they can build onto their existing house.

Rebar is often shaped, connected, and installed before cement is poured in building foundations and, in the case of larger structures like skyscrapers, throughout the whole structure.

The reason why rebar is placed in buildings is to reinforce the structure.  With this added reinforcement, the foundation and structure are made stronger and can be built on to. 

There is a building project in Las Vegas called the CityCenter costing $8.5 billion. Its signature structure called the Harmon Tower has been sitting unfinished since 2008. The Harmon Tower was planned to be 49 stories but construction was halted when it got to the 28th floor. County building inspectors found the rebar installed by a subcontractor had been installed in the wrong places and, in other places, the rebar was deficient.  The building could not be built up further and MGM Mirage, who owns the project, is debating whether to complete it as a smaller structure with significant rework or to just tear it down.

Forming the foundation

Consider your safety process. Certainly your safety management systems such as your procedures, rules, reporting systems, inspections, hazard identification, safety training and the like act as a sort of foundation and structure that we hope will reduce hazards and associated risk. In my travels to many different companies, I’ve seen these systems succeed and I’ve seen them fail, sometimes having to be rebuilt. Even the best-designed systems can fail. They needed more rebar.

Rebar is the reinforcement. Rebar is there so you can build upon and strengthen. 

Ask yourself:  What in our safety process can we build upon, that we must reinforce?

Well, what is the difference between successful safety management systems and those that are less effective or outright fail to protect the worker?  In my experience having seen these many examples, it comes down to one thing: behavior.

Management system behaviors

Safety management systems are trying to manage risk resulting from behavior while at the same time necessitating these same people to participate in the systems through their behavior.  Rules and procedures seek to outline the behaviors to take place in the face of hazards.  However, there are far more behaviors needed from the workforce and leadership when safety management systems need reporting, inspections, hazard identification, peer observations and feedback, team membership, and other forms of participation.

Without these behaviors, these safety systems cannot succeed. In fact, as we see with the Harmon Tower, the reality can be more insidious. At the beginning of the project they did not find any rebar deficiencies until the construction built to the 5th floor; that’s when the problem started. 

Often there may be sufficient compliance to safety management system requests for behaviors when they are first stood up. But after the initial fanfare and attention, compliance behaviors can become, as we saw with the Harmon Tower’s rebar, weakened by deficient quality, displaced elsewhere, or absent altogether.

Building up behaviors

So, what do you want to reinforce?  What do you need to strengthen to build, really build, your safety process?  The answer would be behavior. Take a moment now to make a list of the behaviors you need to build, in quantity and quality, among those that work with you. Consider not only behaviors that are the safe alternative to risk, but also safety process participation behaviors along with the behaviors of your management and leadership.

These are the behaviors that need to be reinforced…  built up.

In behavioral science, a reinforcer is anything that increases a behavior’s occurrence or quality. How convenient is that???  We know a lot about reinforcing behavior.

Reinforcing behavior can be really simple and done by anyone. It just requires awareness of certain behaviors occurring and a little effort. Consider yourself a construction mason whose job it is to shape, connect and install the rebar:

1) Identify the behaviors you need to build up. Write them in full sentences starting with an action verb saying what is to be done, when, why, and upon what instructions.

2) Make sure people know what these behaviors are and make sure they have the capacity and time to do them.

3) Give them an opportunity to demonstrate the behavior in front of you and give them feedback until they do it fluently.

4) Watch and wait until you see one of the behaviors occurring.

5) Go to that person and praise their action.  Say, “You did this, it helped you stay safe while you did that because ”… or “You did this, it helped the team build that because               .”

6) Repeat 4 & 5 abundantly, and get others to do the same.

Constant reinforcement

Let me tell you about a manager of an Alabama distribution facility who I’ll call Mason. Mason benchmarked another facility in his company that led the way in safety excellence. He didn’t believe that the behavioral safety program could have such impact… he frankly thought they were cooking the numbers. So he arrived at the site two days early unannounced and started talking to employees to get the real dirt. 

He found out these numbers were not a façade.  Instead he found a culture of behaviors that not only supported the safety process but also led to active safety coaching among workers.  What Mason took back was how much everyone reinforced each other’s behaviors constantly.

Back home he gathered his supervisors and asked them to praise five workers a day for a specific action that helped themselves or others stay safe. He told them at the end of the week he was going to interview around 20 employees and ask them if a supervisor said anything positive to them about safety.  He would take names. If the supervisor’s name was mentioned then Mason would praise that supervisor in that week’s meeting.

The supervisors were hesitant at first.  But they remarked after the first week how easy it was, how pleasant it was.  Mason kept up the interviews; he found them engaging and uplifting.  He told me in the second month employees started telling him of other employees who pointed out a safe behavior and said something like “good job.”  The reinforcement had gone beyond the supervisors and now employees were doing it more than management!

Footnote: It didn’t cost a penny.

So get out the rebar and start building a stronger safety process today.