Safety is Boring

Few things are more mundane than obsessing over the details of safe work practices. And that’s exactly why obsessing is so important.

When the importance of staying safe is so obvious — when the reason is as basic as making sure everyone goes home from work in one piece — why is it so hard to instill a safety culture? Why do people ignore rules created for their own protection? And why do employers sometimes enforce them less consistently than they should?

One theory I have is that for many of us, safety preaching aimed in our direction sounds like nagging. Put on those safety glasses? Yeah, yeah. Lock out and tag out that machine you’re servicing? Hey, it’s a small job. It’ll only take two minutes.

Little petty rules just get in the way. Nothing bad ever happens when we neglect to put on a hardhat, or fail to shore a trench that’s only a few feet deep, or ignore frayed insulation on a power cord. Nothing ever happens — until it does. And then, well …

Setting an example

In that spirit, we must recognize the E.H. Aldrich Station Water Treatment Facility in Elrama, Pa., subject of a profile in this issue of WSO. Team members there, as of late 2012, had worked 11 years — some 387,000 employee hours — without recording an accident that caused someone to lose time at work (and I hope our featuring them on these pages doesn’t jinx them).

Now, water treatment plants aren’t exactly notorious for being dangerous workplaces. But still, 11 years injury-free is a long time, and people there work around electricity, motors, wet floors, stairways, ladders, chemicals and more.

Staying safe at this facility, as at any workplace with a commendable safety record, is about the culture. It’s not about individual people being extra careful. It’s about leadership insisting on safe practices and, more important, processes designed with safety as the paramount concern.

Dan Hufton, senior production director at this plant, operated by Pennsylvania American Water, sums it up: “We don’t decide how to do something first. We decide how to keep everyone safe first.” The team members discuss safety at every meeting, and the leaders reward people for safety achievements.

Ignore the stats

There’s another thing you can be pretty sure that leaders of this and other safe facilities do, and that’s avoid taking too much pride in statistics. Because what does an 11-year perfect record mean if next week someone gets injured through carelessness or a bad process?

I once knew a mining company executive who had been in charge of a South American coal mine for several years, during which time his site compiled a safety record — based on statistics of workplace injuries — far below global norms for the industry.

“You must be proud,” I once said to him. He replied, “I am ashamed to say that two workers were killed during the time I was in charge.” In his view, the only acceptable injury rate was zero. He felt that around any workplace mishap, one could always find something that could have or should have been done to prevent it. He was reluctant to accept that “accidents happen.”

Keeping watch

That attitude starts from the top in any safety culture. And somehow it gets conveyed in ways that are not boring. Simply pestering people about safety — insisting that they “be more careful” — isn’t enough. And yet there needs to be an obsessiveness about the mundane details of keeping the workplace safe.

The expectation — clearly and repeatedly communicated — is that first of all, everyone will go home each day without an intervening visit to a hospital. And that expectation of course is undermined unless every team member is on board with it.

In other words, yes, there are safety rules here, and yes, following them is a condition of working on this team. On that point there is no negotiation. In such a context, safety lessons become less mundane, less like nagging, less boring. And that’s part of how those long injury-free spells get started, and continue.


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