Howard Mavity | Fisher & Phillips LLP
After 30 years of practicing labor law and managing more than 500 fatality cases, I am a pragmatic guy and I don’t like jargon. I look for practical solutions. And yet, I absolutely agree that we must do more than “comply,” we must build a safety “culture.” One can achieve decent compliance by diligence and discipline. Of course, “compliance” with OSHA standards will not alone prevent injuries. Even more tellingly, a practical focus on preventing injuries will not guarantee that you’ve crossed all the “t’s” and dotted the “i’s” to comply with OSHA standards. One has to expressly focus efforts on both goals. The only way to have a decent shot at achieving both of these goals is to build a “culture” in which employees and management automatically and continuously stop, consider the hazards, then address them. We can’t force this mindset. Management has to visibly embrace it and then convince employees that they are as serious about maintaining a safety culture as they are about other business goals. Sure, safety is a “core value,” but that term may be a bit too theoretical for a chief financial officer or plant manager. I prefer to treat it like any other business goal with plans, mile markers and accountability.
Our first challenge is thus to market the “culture” concept to management, and that involves disabusing them of some erroneous assumptions. First . . . every CEO genuinely believes that “safety is number one.” It’s not. Few executives have a realistic grasp of their safety culture, and many assume that they are just fine, thank you. In fact, a safety culture always is improving, otherwise it’s going backwards. I’m wary of the executive who blithely assumes that safety is number one. The CEOs that I trust will wince and candidly admit that they’re taking concrete steps to build a safety culture, “but they’re not there yet.” That’s the desirable mindset; then you can work on even building “passion.”
The second erroneous executive assumption is “I’ve got good people who take care of safety.” If executives silo safety as a task that only the safety professionals handle, compliance won’t occur and the culture will be one that is, at best, ambivalent. No number of safety professionals can build a safety culture without leaders pushing concrete steps to engage employees and managers.
This problem leads to our next “marketing challenge” . . . the safety professional’s attitude. Some safety professionals seem to view themselves as lone crusaders in an “us against them” battle. Granted, some companies’ safety atmosphere can contribute to such attitudes, but that’s irrelevant. The safety professional’s job is to protect workers and one does whatever it ethically requires to achieve this goal. Accordingly, I enjoy working with safety professionals that have so immersed themselves in the business process that managers view them as their partners in manufacturing or distributing goods, except that the safety professional also keeps them straight about safety. We can’t become “internal affairs cops.” Master the business. Focus on making it better … and using safety to do so.