Letters From The Earth

Safety first

By Calvin Frost | March 13, 2014

I’ve always tried to develop a relevant analogy, a story line, when writing about complex topics. I try to “cozy” my way in, trying to get your attention. I believe it works. The trick, of course, is to find a thread, a theme which can be carried through from beginning to end.
Here’s one:

If you’ve ever read Robert Frost, you know he challenges your mind, your relationship with a spiritual deity, and your everyday thinking. Go beyond, his poetry says. You can’t be complacent with Frost. (On a lighter note, Frost met Frost when he was in his 80’s and I was in my late teens. I was so nervous I scarcely said a word. I was invited to a tea before he gave an invocation. I don’t remember anything except my nerves. Of course, I’d prepared by reading and rereading everything he wrote. Oh, sadness that I couldn’t have this tea now. I think I wouldn’t be so awestruck and might engage in some kind of worthy conversation. Better yet, keep your mouth shut when you don’t have something useful to say. That’s Robert Frost, all the way!) His most famous poem has to do with the outdoors, quiet comfort in forests:

Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year
(the only sound is)
The sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

His message is that solitude has a satisfaction that you really can’t understand until you experience stopping in the woods on a snowy evening. Frost finds truth in the woods by shaking off preconceptions of the way he wants the world to be (oh, boy, do I have that problem!). “And, his ultimate message is that we must lose what we think we know so we can come to see what we least expect,” at least this is how Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated interprets the poem. I agree. Chris tells it best by ending an editorial introduction with this vignette:

“A city kid was visiting Vermont for the summer and was seen poking a toad with a stick. A local boy came up and said, ‘stop poking that toad.’ The city kid said, ‘well, it’s my toad, and I guess I can do what I like,’ at which point the Vermont boy looked at him hard and then said slowly, ‘here in Vermont, he’s his own toad’.”

Both messages, Frost’s and Kimball’s, are a great introduction to positive safety culture. Point being, a culture of safety starts with only one person: you. If you don’t have that moment in “the woods,” the time when “you lose what you think you know so that you come to see what you least expect,” you will not create a culture of safety. This culture creates sustainability, profitability, and a cohesive morale that is incredibly positive. These “moments” must come from the top. They not only must come from the top, but must trickle down through the entire organization. The top of the organization must embrace safety culture, make it a meaningful way of life in every aspect of the business environment.

If we consider today’s economy, what are the most important assets for companies? They remain:

- The ability to adapt quickly in a quickly changing technologically advanced world.
- The ability to develop and retain high-performing employees.
- Creation of motivation and direction of purpose.

It was once said “give a man a fish and he’ll have food for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll have food for a lifetime.” Training and focus on core competencies allow us to achieve the latter. Don’t impose safety culture, train and teach.

Research shows that employees want to participate in the development of something greater than themselves. They not only want to listen in the woods, they want to hear. They do not want simple memorization instruction. If it doesn’t relate to what they are doing, how will they do it, or, what’s in it for them? It is unrealistic to expect them to retain the information. Remember school and college? Memory lasted through your exams and then it was gone.

The Cone of Learning represents the relationship between student (employee) participation and retention. Have you seen this before? It speaks worlds, however, applying it in our everyday business environment is another thing. Essentially, active learning methods result in much greater retention by the learner. Participants respond favorably when they are part of a process and believe they are making a contribution to the outcome. There was a survey back in the 1990s by Princeton Research Associates that showed:

- 63% of workers want more influence in workplace decisions.
- 76% believe their companies would be more competitive if employees were involved in production and operating decisions.
- 79% believe employees improve product and service quality.

William Glasser, M.D. in Psychiatry, states, “we should provide opportunities for students (employees) to teach what we want them to learn.” 

He notes that we learn:

  10% of what we read
  20% of what we hear
  30% of what we see
  50% of what we both see and hear
  70% of what is discussed with others
  80% of what we experience personally, and
  95% of what we teach someone else.

I am convinced that most of us have gone through the Cone of Learning and that the ultimate teacher is, teaching others. I have watched this at our own plant where we unload 5,000 pound rolls, move them from one point to another, put them on machines with very sharp blades to make small rolls. Safety culture, and that’s what this column is ultimately about, safety culture, does start at the top but can only be truly effective when taught by those who must operate in a critical environment. Safety belts, flashing lights, guards, mixing chemicals, washout/lock-out is best learned by and subsequently taught by the pros, the ones who do it, day in and day out, the operators.

The other day we blew a shaft on a winder in our clean room. Our state-of-the-art winder went down in a 24/7 operation. We ordered a new shaft from Germany but even with air shipment we were looking at a three-week replacement window. Our production manager replaced the bolts in the damaged shaft and we were able to run the winder at reduced speeds. A steel gate was created in front of the shaft just in case of another equipment malfunction. The most critical part of the solution was a specific safety protocol put in place until the new shaft could be installed. I personally attended the meeting when these new measures, albeit temporary, were put in place. The importance of safety over speed was embraced from the top down during this unique interlude.

Stop in the woods. Take a deep breath. Lose what you think you know by developing an interactive role as a teacher within your own company. Positive culture provides and creates compliance with safety regulations and supports a cohesive company environment where everyone benefits.

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.