Creating a Culture of Safety Excellence

Article from MHI Solutions

When Mike Larsson traveled to Utah last May, it was for a happy occasion that many companies will never get the chance to observe.

As MHI member Dematic Corp.’s executive vice president for the Americas, Larsson was on his way to help the company’s Salt Lake City plant—a maker of storage and retrieval systems for manufacturing and distribution operations—celebrate 10 years without a lost-time accident.

“You won’t achieve such an outcome without having an embedded safety culture,” Larsson said. “When we listen to the plant leadership and staff talk about this great achievement, it’s very clear that everyone is taking it upon themselves to contribute to a safe environment and, more importantly, also looking out for each other.”

While we’ve all heard the corporate line—”The safety of our employees is our No. 1 priority”—in this industry safety is more than just a slogan or a poster on the break-room wall. It’s the ultimate byproduct of a complex interplay of people, processes, tools and technology. And for true leaders in workplace safety, it’s also about something less tangible but perhaps even more important: a set of norms, behaviors and expectations—a culture of safety excellence—that has been developed over years or decades until it is completely engrained in a company’s way of doing business.

It’s the X factor that enables employers to rise above the pack and achieve continuous improvement in safety performance leading to an enviable track record on key metrics such as injury rates and lost time for a decade and beyond. And those results translate into greater operating efficiencies, increased productivity, higher margins and even improved customer satisfaction.

To suggest that company culture alone can create a consistently safe workplace would be overreaching. But industry leaders and workplace safety experts agree a company culture that reinforces the safety message and nurtures the right behaviors at every opportunity is the ‘secret sauce’ that elevate safety performance from good to great.

Industry faces new safety challenges

Workplace safety is an especially critical issue today for companies in the material handling, logistics and supply chain industries, where pandemic-driven labor shortages and an explosion in e-commerce have pushed factories, warehouses, distribution centers and third-party logistics providers to their limits. Even the trend toward increased automation that was accelerated by the pandemic poses new safety issues.

Consider these grim numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

– The United States recorded 4,572 workplace deaths due to preventable injuries in 2019, with the transportation and warehousing sector reporting more on-the-job fatalities than all other occupations except construction.

– 4.6 million injuries requiring medical attention were recorded across all industries.

– In all, a worker is injured every seven seconds in the United States, and 98% of injuries are the result of unsafe behavior.

It’s not just an enterprise-level problem, either. Losses to the U.S. economy from preventable workplace deaths and injuries topped $171 billion in 2019—nearly equivalent to the annual contribution to U.S. GDP from the entire material handling industry, which was estimated at $173.2 billion in 2018, according to an Oxford Economics study commissioned by MHI.

Building blocks of workplace safety

Mary Joanne (“Majo”) Thurman, director of environmental health and safety for MHI member Rockwell Automation, said achieving an outstanding safety record over the long haul requires three fundamental prerequisites: compliance, capital and culture.

Compliance means committing to the rigorous risk assessment and hazard control standards of a safety management system such as ISO 45001, along with the religious application of measurement tools to quantify performance on key safety metrics so that leadership and employees can chart a path to improvement.

Capital is necessary to invest in technologies that can enhance workplace safety—and in some cases even influence the culture itself through behavior-based safety observation programs. (Story, page 36.)

Culture is the people part.

“We define culture as employee engagement, ownership of the safety process at the appropriate levels because we want to make sure we’re holding people accountable for things they can influence, and then leadership visibility,” Thurman said. “It’s really looking at how all those things play together so that we can build that culture and the culture of trust.”

“Culture can’t be successful on its own. Compliance can’t be successful on its own, or technology,” Thurman said. “We like to use management systems—plan, do, check, act—as a tool to help bring all those things together. You have to have the foundation of hazard control and risk assessment and compliance and then on top of that build on the culture piece. It takes all of those elements to be successful.”

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