Letters From The Earth

Safety first

By Calvin Frost | May 22, 2012

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy gave a message to Congress about protecting consumer interests:  “The march of technology, affecting, for example, the foods we eat, the medicines we take, and the many appliances we use in our homes, has increased the difficulties of the consumer along with his opportunities.” Kennedy listed four basic principles, which he called The Consumer Bill of Rights. His idea was to protect the consumer against the risks of an increasing number and complexity of new products. The four tenets of his Consumer Bill of Rights were: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right to be heard.

What was really fascinating about Kennedy’s speech is that he never mentioned the environment. It was only later that year, in 1962, that The New Yorker magazine began publishing a series of exposés on the harmful effects of the chemical industry on the environment.  These were written by Rachel Carson and eventually were put into book form under the name Silent Spring. That was the start of the environmental movement. While my columns tend to focus on environmental issues that are caused by our technology, I think that 50 years after the Kennedy speech on the Consumer Bill of Rights, it is more than appropriate to revisit one very important aspect of that talk; namely, the right to safety.

Kennedy was interested in consumer protection against the marketers of goods which are hazardous to “health or life.” While I acknowledge the importance of consumer safety, I believe there is another important right to safety and that is safety in the work environment.  Today we seem to be more focused on the “Kennedy safety” because of the profusion of product development. Since World War II, the number of goods in a typical grocery store has quadrupled from 1,500 to over 6,000. Today, between 30,000 and 40,000 new products enter the market every year, and like it or not, their exact contents and environmental and human health effects are generally unknown. While consumer interest in “green” and environmentally friendly products has grown, what has happened in the workplace? How do we prioritize safety in our plants and offices? It is one thing to talk about consumer safety but totally incongruous, in my view, if we don’t use and implement safe practices in our factories. The two have to go hand in hand.

Let me give you some facts. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that a total of 4,547 workers died on the job in 2010 compared to 4,551 in 2009. I find that unbelievably distressing and totally unacceptable. Terrie Norris, president of The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), said, “the fact that this nation’s fatalities are not significantly decreasing should be a call for action . . . especially at an economically challenging time when some of the most dangerous industries are not at full employment . . . This nation’s effort to protect workers is stalled.”

I think he’s right.  BLS reported that cases of very serious workplace injuries, severe enough to require days away from work to recuperate, totaled more than one million in 2009.  To be precise, 1,238,490 cases. This includes more than 100 amputations per week (5,930 total) and more than 90 potentially disfiguring chemical burns per week (4,740 total).  The BLS report also listed approximately 750 multiple traumatic injuries per week (38,820 total) along with more than 2,000 serious injuries per week.  Need I continue?!  Is the message clear?  To me the message is that we have a leadership crisis when it comes to safety in the workplace. Consumer safety is public.
We can point the finger very quickly to products that are defective or cause harm.  The other aspect of safety, safety in the workplace, goes largely unnoticed. Serious injuries and fatalities, or SIF’s as they are called in the trade, remain under wraps. There seems to be a “wall of silence.” As David Johnson, associate publisher and editor-in-chief of Industrial safety and Hygiene News, points out, “No questions are being raised, except in some traumatized companies, about what men and women in the workplace are dying and being seriously wounded for, and why. . . . there is absolutely no acceptable reason.  There are, though, unacceptable ones. Widespread overreliance on superficial OSHA record keeping figures. Underfunding of safety and health departments. Downsizing of safety and health staff.  The safety profession’s lack of research.  It’s fragmentation and turf battles.”  And, it goes on.

Safety in the workplace is driven by culture. It starts at the top and given the proper recognition provides positive habits and behavior that go directly to the bottom line. Pat Tracy, who is a business unit manager for Peavey Performance Systems has designed and implemented safety recognition programs that achieve changes in behavior and awareness. These programs incentivize employees. The results are less loss-time accidents, better attendance, and higher productivity. This results in more bottom line profit.

Tracy has developed a very simple matrix for successful safety recognition. He calls it his 9 Action Program for Safety. They are:
1) Don’t Just Dangle a Carrot – Create a campaign that communicates commitment by the company to better safety practices.  It recognizes success and results in stronger participation.
2) Give Workers a Choice – Give associates the opportunity to choose instead of the proverbial “one size fits all.” Provide awards that create a culture of change.
3) Reward Frequently – This creates safety awareness and your accident reduction goals are always in front of the team.
4) Reward Individuals and Teams – Design safety criteria that recognize the individual and the team. Perhaps an individual recognition every week and a team recognition every month.
5) Everyone Wins – Successful recognition programs reward all who achieves the goal.
6) Engage Employees – Involve the safety committee in the goal-setting process. If you don’t have a safety committee, get involvement from different departments. Include staff from the office.
7) Get Management Involved – This is an absolute necessity. Floor personnel respond with management participation and the results are a more safety conscious workforce.
8) Communicate Clear Goals – Establish clear goals with appropriate language and management.
9) Keep it Easy – Programs that are complicated and loaded with administrative requirements never create an effective recognition environment.

Safety in the workplace is just as important as consumer sa––fety. It is not complicated and requires very simple focus and metrics. Pat Tracy’s nine-step recognition program is an idea that you can use to develop an effective safety program in your company. The result is positive.  It leads to a better bottom line and at the same time contributes to excellent employee morale. 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.