Letters From The Earth

Plant Safety: Who's in charge?

April 11, 2011

I was reminded recently by a reader that over the years I have tended to focus on the "E" of Environment, Health and Safety. I admit to that preoccupation. After all, the brand owner is our customer and is driving us to be focused on stewardship. Hence, many of my columns are directed to sustainable packaging and friendly technology. In the interest of being as broad as possible I will deviate from my proposed 2011 schedule and dedicate this column to safety.

There is no question that safety and health in the national workplace has come a long way. We have fewer fatalities and the professional health and safety managers have global and corporate responsibilities. I believe that the profession has moved way beyond the original focus of trying to stay ahead of OSHA compliance. The professionals are now making contributions in sustainability, risk management, product stewardship, and organizational leadership. However, I do wonder if there is serious buy-in from senior executives on the role of health and safety. Many times a company has to experience a catastrophe before safety is acknowledged to be crucial to success in a business. By then it is already too late. For example, the space shuttle Challenger disaster that devastated NASA in 1986 has made that organization incredibly safety conscious; and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 turned ExxonMobil into one of the safest energy companies. Sadly, it was a catastrophic event that caused change and new focus.

Before I share with you the results of a survey by Industrial Safety & Health News (IHSN), let's list the worst US fatalities in 2010.

- In February, there was a huge explosion at Kleen Energy in Middletown, CT. This killed five and injured 27.

- In April, the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes, WA, had a massive fire that resulted in an explosion that killed five and insured a dozen or so workers.

- The Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia was the worst mining explosion since the Sago Mine explosion in 2006. The Big Branch Mine explosion killed 29.

- Not to be forgotten is the largest ever environmental disaster on the Gulf Coast, which killed 11. This also was in late April.

- Let's not forget the Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline explosion that killed four and destroyed 38 homes. This was in San Bruno, CA, in September.

All of the above are examples of disasters that caused senior management to change focus on health and safety in 2010. Sadly, fatality had to bring about change.

The survey by ISHN was directed to professional safety engineers and asked questions about their values and beliefs. The answers are quite startling. The answers indicate that even these safety and health professionals are undecided about their own beliefs! Indeed, the results of the survey refute my opening remarks about the importance of health and safety professionals. Consider these:

Does management understand safety issues?
49 percent of professionals believe executives "think they get safety but in reality they do not." About 44 percent of respondents believe that executives do get it and act accordingly. About 50 percent each. Interestingly, however, in large facilities with 1,000 or more employees, the professionals think that only 34 percent of executives "get it" and 61 percent say they don't. That's really scary, because larger facilities pose the greatest potential for safety risk. If the top brass don't get it, the business operates at risk.

What causes accidents?
44 percent of safety professionals believe that the majority of accidents are attributable to human error. 22 percent disagree and 33 percent are undecided. Remember, these are safety experts and this group cannot reach a consensus.

What is management's role in accidents?
31 percent of the pros believe most causes of accidents are attributable to management priority and decision making. 33 percent disagree and 21 percent are undecided.

Are safety professionals true leaders?
41 percent believe that the professional has not had time or enough authority to instill a culture of safety leadership at the employee, supervisor, and senior executive level. My question: "Why have them if they can't create cultural change?"

Do safety professionals have the courage of their convictions?
The answer – "Most professionals will not put their careers at risk by standing up and speaking out about problems" – blew me away. Again, why have a safety officer if he won't speak his mind and create value in his position?

Should safety professionals stir public outrage?
43 percent believe professionals should become activists and do more to arouse safety outrage among employees, their families, and the general public. The scary part of this is that most whistle blowers eventually lose their jobs. The question that goes begging is, "Where does the buck stop?" If you don't speak up, you aren't doing your job and change won't occur until there's a disaster. If you do speak up, criticize, and request change, you ultimately get fired. Therefore, how can we view professionals as truly objective in requiring improvement and change? Are they posturing and dancing through the jungle of political innuendo because they're worried about their jobs?

There are many more questions, but in summary, safety and health professionals can't agree on:

- the competence of their bosses;
- the quality of their own leadership;
- their ability to take a stand for safety, no matter what;
- whether outrage is an appropriate tool to use;
- how the public perceives professionals, and so on.

What jumps out at me in this survey is that health and safety professionals can't seem to make decisions. I sure hope they are less ambivalent in addressing health and safety issues in their own facilities. I don't see how these folks can be so undecided about issues that affect everyday operations. Does this all go back to the senior manager who won't budget safety the same way he budgets product development or new machinery? Maybe the professionals who answered this survey are part-time safety and part-time manufacturing. If this is the case, you know where the emphasis will be.

Whether it is the horrific disasters in 2010 or the very unsettling results of the survey of professionals that raises doubt, safety and health must take on a more prominent role in all of our businesses. Both sustainability and good health and safety practices can and do affect our bottom lines. Support of both from all levels of business will lead to greater success and profitability.

Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.
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