Letters From The Earth

Healthy relationships

By Calvin Frost, Contributing Editor | March 13, 2013

It is probably more difficult to affect culture change than develop a meaningful relationship. Let me try to explain. I was thinking about health and safety (and health insurance) and wondered if “relationships,” internal and external, are meaningful in a positive health and safety culture. I concluded yes, they are.

Consider your own environment. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re in an office or a factory. If management doesn’t create a culture that supports a healthy life style, your insurance premiums go up.  Simple examples are smoking, drinking and lack of exercise – which all affect health which lead to more doctor visits which lead to higher medical insurance costs. How does management promote a culture of health? How can relationships form that will help develop this culture.

I was reminded of a story a friend of mine told me. He was living with his family in Washington, DC and his kids were quite young.  His son was just five and he signed him up for a soccer team which he described as “a pack of children, huddled around a ball, moving en masse up and down the field.” He remembered one parent, dressed in business attire, running up and down the sidelines, following the pack, yelling, “Focus, focus, focus.” My friend thought it was more fun to watch the parents than the kids!

Even more memorable was his impression of prominent Washington personalities from opposite ends of the political spectrum,
conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, enjoying friendship on the sidelines. Even though they had well-known differences of opinion, aired vigorously on news shows, those distinctions fell away because of shared devotion to those clueless (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration) kids, and they discovered they could develop a positive relationship.

This story made me think about relationships forged amidst differences. The common denominator above is children playing soccer; walls break down and relationships form. In fact it is dominant. Therefore, relationships move pretty quickly because of a common facilitator. In business the catalyst is need and situation. With those two, a healthy relationship is born and nurtured.

Culture, therefore, is really based on relationships. It is without a doubt influenced by relationships. Culture, safety culture specifically, is a focused, targeted endeavor, probably driven, particularly in a large organization, by outside consultants or a division of some sub-group of the larger organization.The consultants go in, conduct a culture survey of employees and management, maybe create a gap analysis, and report back. The objective of this exercise is to analyze and compare the percentage of safe versus at-risk behavior. Ultimately there is team building and group celebrations for improvement, closing the gap between labor and management, and most importantly, finding and fixing hazards. Remember, we’re talking about safety culture.

Dave Johnson, editor in chief of ISHN, offers two examples of failed culture. Very interestingly, Johnson doesn’t see the culture process working on a university campus. His example is Penn State. “Are students supposed to be trained in behavioral observations? Or faculty?  Or maintenance men? Just what critical behaviors are being tracked?  Child abuse? Negligent reporting of misdeeds?

I won’t give you his entire conclusion about the success or failure of culture change at PSU. Just the point that if culture change is to happen in this particular example, the change must confront the force that is college football. This isn’t about relationships. This is about confrontation with a culture where the core objective is winning.

If culture change results in fewer wins, well that’s almost un-American. Penn State is a big-time winner. Its football teams have had seven undefeated seasons in its long history going back to 1887. It has won two national championships. It has been invited to 43 bowl games. Its all-time record is 715 wins (that is with 111 wins vacated by the NCAA) and 389 losses, for a .642 winning percentage. Success on the field has led to the enlargement of Beaver Stadium to 106,572 seats.

Whatever culture change comes Penn State’s way, it will not result in drawing “only” 60,000 or 70,000 fans to Beaver Stadium. Football and other athletic pursuits in the U.S. are near-religious experiences. Any culture change at Penn State is not going to change the religious fervor for Nittany Lion football.

Suffice it to say, “safety culture” is not a religion like football. Changing safety culture in large and small environments is sometimes harsh and confrontational. But, compared to sports, and I see the PSU cover-up as a “despicable manifestation” (to use Dave Johnson’s terms).Safety culture is like a dance card. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. We need to change that, don’t you think, and make this kind of culture a winner.

Johnson’s second example of failed culture puts a different spin on the bin Laden take down. Never once did I consider a complacent culture to be “a killer.” Here is a lesson from bin Laden as told by Dave Johnson.

It makes you wonder at what point did that extra degree of vigilance he had get dulled by routine?
You can only be hyper-vigilant for so long. Did bin Laden go to sleep every night thinking, The next night they’re coming?Of course not. Maybe for the first year or two. But not now.

These quotes from intelligence sources printed in articles in The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine make me think of one word that resonates in the job safety world – complacency.

Osama bin Laden’s once-large entourage of Arab bodyguards was down to one trusted Pakistani courier and the courier’s brother.  His hide-out as it were, an unusually large compound in a quiet neighborhood in Abbottaland, Pakistan, was not booby trapped, as U.S. special ops troops believed might be the case.  The house had no escape tunnel, no false walls or hidden doors.
The man, according to intelligence sources, was perhaps stifled by monotony. Bored.

Bin Laden was not prepared for the kind of attack the commandos carried out. Only one man in the compound the night of the attack was armed. The Americans had expected serveral more men to be in the house. The only shots fired came in the beginning of the raid. When the one man shooting was killed by commando gunfire, the Americans were never fired upon again.

The house of course did have security precautions in place. A locked metal gate blocked the base of the staircase leading to the second floor. A metal gate blocked all access to bin Laden’s bedroom. The third floor where bin laden lived had windows on only one of its four sides, and they were opaque. Four of the five windows were merely slits above eye level. The concrete walls of the compound were unusually thick, between 12 to 18 feet high and topped with barbed wire. A solid metal door on one of the compounds exterior walls was blown off its hinges by commandos, who were greeted by a large brick wall.

Despite these precautions, “The aging bin Laden may have grown complacent or tired during his decade on the run; he had no real escape plan,” said Time.

This certainly sounds like a culture of complacency to me. It’s similar to what we find in many work environments. In fact, we encounter this all the time. We’ve done a job for years and years. It’s routine. After 10 years we don’t even think about it. We’ve become complacent. Think about Johnson’s analogy to bin Laden. He was on the run for almost 10 years, whether in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

What do we do about monotony in the workplace? Boredom and fatigue of the mind? How do we keep a workforce constantly vigilant about not just their own safety, but the safety of co-workers? I really think we’re back to culture, and, yes, at times, relationships. We need to create a culture where everyone has everyone’s back. Police on patrol in hazardous environments normally have partners. One watches the other’s back. The 23 Navy Seals who raided bin Laden’s headquarters were a team. They watched each other’s backs. It takes a team to conquer complacency. It is such a tough issue because the usual defense, particularly in small companies, is, “We haven’t had a serious accident in years, so not to worry.” But we must worry, we must remain vigilant because just a moment’s lapse can lead to the serious accident no management team wants to face.

Really, the answer is you need a culture of safety that not only employees buy into but that is espoused in every aspect by senior management. Culture and relationships at the end of the day do go hand in hand. One begets the other. Successful companies today promote safety culture 24/7. They hold safety seminars, they provide forklift training, they have written procedures for chemical storage and disposal, they give recognition for suggestions that lead to a safer workplace, etc.  Relationships are fostered by this focus and safety becomes as important to the culture as bottom line profitability. Kudos if you can foster a culture where good health is as valued as safety. Let your relationships foster a positive culture which embraces safety and counters complacency. You may even end up tracking an employee’s chip number as they run a marathon.

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.