From 52 accidents in one year to zero accidents for over 1,300 days. How I changed the safety culture at my small manufacturing company – and improved the whole culture of the company in many other ways.
By Alec Pendleton, Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by The MPI Group
Forging is a tough business, and a forge shop is an inherently unpleasant place to work. Factories are typically noisy, hot, filthy – and dangerous.
Shortly after I started full-time work at my family’s forging company, I was in a meeting to develop objectives for the following year’s Business Plan. How much would we increase sales, and how? What new equipment would we buy? How could we improve productivity? Etc. For each of these questions, and many others, we developed targets, and procedures, and deadlines. It was, frankly, a pretty boring meeting, especially for me, since I was new in the job.
But one question quickly got my attention: what was our safety goal? Our accident record was lousy. Not long before we’d had 52 lost-time accidents in one year – and we had fewer than 100 employees, so statistically every one of them could expect to be hurt every other year! In the planning meeting, it was proposed that we set a goal of reducing accidents in the next year by 10%.
Why, I asked, was our goal anything other than to eliminate accidents entirely? The group patiently explained to me that this was impossible, that forge shops were inherently dangerous, and injuries were just to be expected. They were part of the culture.
That sounded to me like a pretty bad culture, and I didn’t believe it couldn’t be improved, so I took personal responsibility for the safety program, and set about to fix it. We had a safety committee comprised of the HR manager, plant manager, one or two foremen, and a couple of guys from the union. The committee met about once a month, and the meetings consisted largely of reviewing last month’s list of problems and hearing progress reports on addressing them. There were typically about twenty or so items on the list, and the progress reports were most often that there had been no progress. There were items that had been on the monthly list for years. The message was loud and clear: unsafe conditions were acceptable to management, and safety was less important than perceived productivity.
I made a few changes. First, I moved the meetings from monthly to weekly. Second, I changed the population of the committee so that the majority was from the union. Third, I insisted that all meetings on any subject – not just safety committee meetings – must start with a safety report. And finally, I instituted this rule: ANYONE could shut down an operation ANYTIME if he believed it to be unsafe, and it could not be restarted until the condition had been addressed to the satisfaction of at least two out of three people – the machine operator, the supervisor, and one of the union members of the safety committee.
I was told by the union workers that this rule would not work, that supervisors would refuse to stop an operation just because someone thought it was unsafe, and that anyone who disobeyed would be disciplined. I was told by the supervisors that this rule would not work, because it was an invitation to abuse; anyone who didn’t feel like working could just declare his machine unsafe and spend the rest of his shift loafing. Productivity would suffer.
Fast forward a few years: from 52 accidents in one year, we went to zero accidents for over 1,300 days – almost four years! The culture had changed – and in fact the whole culture of the company improved in many other ways as well.
So what was it that I did to achieve this result? How did I change the culture?
First, I changed the priorities. Why any company – especially a manufacturing operation – would ever have any priority higher than safety, I don’t know, but we did, and I insisted it be changed.
Second, I empowered the people who were impacted by the policy, and who were best positioned to recognize unsafe conditions and to address them. Giving voting control of the safety committee to the union members sent a very loud message, and, as I knew they would, they rose to the occasion.
Third, I respected the integrity of the entire workforce. By giving every employee the power to abuse his responsibilities – to fake a safety problem so he could loaf – I bet that we would get the opposite result, and we did. And that made the supervisors’ work easier in a lot of other ways beyond just safety. It turned them from productivity police into productivity enablers, and pretty soon that put the whole company on the same side of all our objectives. We were one team addressing external challenges, not two opposing teams fighting among ourselves.
This story is simplified, but I believe that the underlying principles can be used in any situation to improve an unfavorable culture. I believe that the vast majority of employees in any organization are there to cooperate, to support the mission of the company, and to work for everyone’s benefit. Cultural problems begin when they are thwarted in that intent, and those problems won’t end until everyone feels respected and empowered to do their jobs.
© 2017 The MPI Group