During most of my college summers, I worked heavy construction.  In nearly all of those jobs, I experienced scheduling pressures.  As a bottom man or laborer, I was placed in physically demanding activities that were dirty and dangerous.  We took lots of chances because we thought our calculated risks were necessary to achieve our short-term goals.

Through my summer jobs I gained a great deal of respect for those who work construction and in the trades.  But the push to get it done was an everyday part of the job, especially in the 1970s. Thirty years later, I’m thankful to be alive, and realize that my construction experiences lead to my career in safety.

Don’t run the red light — Be a safety leader

For all sorts of leaders, it’s easy to justify what’s not right or to take measured risks.  Think about your driving routines. You’re late for work or an appointment. Nobody’s around so you exceed the speed limits or run a yellow light. Pretty soon you start running the red light and increasing your speed even more. 

We get pretty good at rationalizing our actions as a necessity and generally continue with our path of action until something bad happens – a ticket, close call, or an accident.  The same thing occurs in the workplace when it comes to schedules and deadlines.  We push the envelope, cut corners, take shortcuts, or place workers in risky activities that aren’t acceptable.  In some way, leaders and workers overestimate the value of their particular risks and actions.

In their own minds, leaders and workers rationalize the acceptability of their particular exposures and actions – “we have a schedule to meet – it’s just one time,” or “the customer has to have it” and “we’re losing big money on this and it might mean my job.”  The list continues and thoughts of justification, looking the other way, and related actions become quite the slippery slope.

Reframing deadlines

Aren’t most schedules and deadlines artificial? Will a few hours of downtime, or even a day, really break your organization? Are there ways to negotiate timetables, reduce the risks, and still be able to move forward?

Unrealistic and unnecessary downward pressures on your front line leaders will eventually cause a backlash that disrupts the performance capabilities of your workers.

Management must learn to become open to listen to its front line leaders (and workers) in a very genuine and transparent way. There must be enough trust to believe in what front line leaders say and allow them to push back, slow things down, or to stop work altogether.

Keep it “68 and Breezy”

Supervisors play a big role in defining a culture and need to be able to push back and keep the heat off their workers. By doing so, supervisors foster a culture of trust and a manageable pace for work — especially when operations have to be slowed or stopped.  I have a few additional thoughts: 

1. Be objective about your situation and attempt to understand perspectives of management and the worker. Sometimes leaders may need to talk to others to gain a clearer viewpoint of scheduling issues that are often negotiable. Plus, the view of safety professionals can provide greater clarity regarding the risks and possible changes that will lessen potential downtime. But don't look too far ahead and enlist the support of others, right away. 

Many young athletes wear a rubber bracelet as a reminder to remain calm when situations become difficult.  The printing on those bracelets reads, 68 and Breezy. That can become your mantra too.

Supervisors need to be aware of their emotions, keeping them in check and holding back. Fight potential outbursts and remain calm. Don't get too fired-up or say things you may regret by verbally smearing others. Even more, part of gaining control is learning how to say it – speaking up about what’s necessary, without being too emotional, defensive, disruptive, or demeaning.

You have to weather the storm for your workers. If you’re upset and rattled, that effect will trickle down to your workers, causing unwanted emotions, distractions, and a lack of focus.

2. Management needs to remain aware of reasonable amounts of justifiable pushback and the trust that will be developed through it. Senior leaders and seasoned supervisors know there will be obstacles – that’s why they’re needed. Leaders who’ve been in similar positions to slow down or stop operations realize there’s a workable solution and process – step back and slow it down, evaluate risks collaboratively, allow each side time to push back, mitigate the risks to the lowest possible levels, and move forward. Finally, keep communicating so that necessary adjustments can be made. 

From a strategic viewpoint, improving bid processes is a proactive measure that can allow for changes in contract adjustments that afford “cost-plus enhancements.”  This is especially relevant whenever additional safety requirements or stoppages are needed.  As an example, contractual changes may highlight requirements for additional time and expenses that relate to fall protection or excavation safety. Proactive measures must always be identified as a viable long-term solution.

Organizational pressures and storms

Various pressures to meet deadlines can cause or lead to poor communications, cloudy thinking, confusion, and conflicts. Even more, emotional pressures within your leaders and workers will eventually bring about judgment errors and mistakes that will prove costly on a number of levels. 

Sadly, in the midst of your storm, when that incident or fatality occurs, you might have to ask your leaders, where’s the deadline now?

The way you and your leaders manage deadlines, risks, slowdowns and the potential havoc created by stoppages will define your safety culture in various ways, but particularly with regard to your ability to engage. 

The great 1st Century B.C. writer and mime, Publilius Syrus, once wrote, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”