Validating Your Safety Success
Written By: Jonathan Shaffer, CSP
Director, Safety Re:Build Optimation Technology
When amongst my professional peers I am asked a familiar question: How do you validate your safety success? Along comes the most familiar diatribe of metrics, lagging and leading indicators, incident rates, etc. It can get boring if you’re not a safety geek.
Many in the safety professional community understand the duality of our existence. When things go wrong, we are the best friend, when things are running smoothly, we are downright agitating. Fortunately, I have never had these experiences as some of my peers. The teams I have had great fortune to be a part of have always embraced a proactive safety culture that is both measured and balanced given what the situation demands.
At Re:Build Optimation Technology our day can start out benign, engineering meetings, static fabrications, etc. At the flick of a switch, we can have team members entering tanks in C1D1 atmospheres to replace pipe work, rigging specialized manufacturing equipment weighing several tons, or designing a never thought of manufacturing line that will produce futuristic products using cobots. These later examples demand a safety culture that has everyone on the same page. Individual decisions matter.
Mike Rowe is a well-known television personality and advocate for skilled trades work in America. He has travelled the country seeking out the most tough and interesting jobs on his show “Dirty Jobs”. He has spoken about his perspective on safety, and it can run counter to the idea that safety is a number one priority. His opinion is that safety is third. This is a radical idea but let me explain. Mike suggests that safety is third because companies exist for one reason and that is to make a profit. This can be upsetting for some, but it is the reason we are all here working. Instead of being some evil and ugly concept, profit is good. It allows us to work towards a common goal of successful company operations and providing products and services to our customers. It allows us to pay into society to benefit the communities we operate in not only with jobs but in tax revenue. Also, company profit allows our organization to expand, continuously improve, and sustain our way of life. Profit spurs innovation. Profit allows us to focus on improving occupational safety and health for our teammates. I like his thoughts, but I do not share Mikes perspective in full. My own philosophy is that occupational safety and health is a co-equal partner with profit. You can’t have one without the other so to speak. I do not prioritize safety because priorities in life change given the external environment. I also do not prioritize profit because to make a profit we need to be safe. Yet I value safety and making a profit because values tend to stick, and we need both. Mike further opines on the question: Who cares more about your own personal safety? I like this question and his perspective that the individual cares the most. It couldn’t be more true. When I enter a hazardous chemical facility or investigate a machine guarding incident, I do not enter lightly. I do my best to not only follow procedures, but also question those procedures to ensure they are right for the situation I find myself in.
Admiral Hyman G. Rickover who was the father of the Navy Nuclear Program, developed safe operations known as the Nuclear Work Model. Rockover developed principles within the model’s framework, one of them being “have a questioning attitude”. I train personnel on this principle because it works, and I believe it can be the difference between life or death. Who wrote the procedure? Is it someone in management? Is it someone with limited experience on control of hazardous energy? Is it someone with limited experience on the specific machinery or equipment? All good questions.
Recently two welders on our team were sent to a customer site to cut off brackets from the outside of a large tank. Unbeknownst to the team, the tank was filled with a chemical that can explode when subjected to heavy agitation. Also unknown to them, the jacket insulation was highly flammable. After a brief explanation by the customer site personnel about the work, they found a room with the tank inside that had been hosed down with water. The two welders were not told why the room was hosed down or about the chemical in the tank or the flammable insulation. After looking the area over both welders backed off. They questioned the water everywhere and asked if the tank was full. They asked for the SDS for the contents of the tank and specs on the insulation. WELL DONE! With a few questions, both welders not only protected their own lives, but protected the customer from potential catastrophic consequences. I will add that one of the welders is a young journeyman and the other was a third-year apprentice. After the incident investigation I asked them both what made them stop the work. Both responded that they wanted to go home at the end of the day and getting the work done that day was not worth it.
One of the many lessons from this gift: No one cares about your safety more than you. A safety program can have checklists, audits, reports, observations, training, etc., just like this customer site did. It can be the latest and greatest craze that industry is embracing. Yet at the end of the shift, none of that is worth much. What is worth a lot is the commitment of the individual team members, culture, and the example we set as leaders. A good questioning attitude can go a long way.
To conclude I will go back to the question I started off with: How I measure safety success? Sure, metrics are important for bidding projects, partnering with customers, and knowing where we stand. How I really measure safety success is when an apprentice and younger journeyman question work and stop it all together due to hazardous conditions. It tells me the secret sauce is working, and to sustain it we must continuously strive for meaningful improvement in our safety posture. I would have those two watching my back any day.