In industrial automation, the work we do is inherently dangerous. The complex and varied environments in which we perform our services or do our daily work pose unique challenges to working safely. We see examples of industrial accidents all too often in the news: explosions, leaks, fires, falls, injuries and even deaths. Our natural inclination is to avoid confronting these painful and difficult scenarios. The personal and potentially devastating impact of a safety lapse is something that we just simply don’t like to face.
Accidents, arguably all of them, are preventable. If we all know what to do – and what NOT to do – to work safely, why doesn’t everyone comply with safety practices 100% of the time? How many times after an incident at home or at work have you thought, “I had a feeling that was going to happen.”? This hindsight is 20/20 – and worthless. After an incident, it is too late and you’re dealing with people who are hurt – or worse – along with the potential negative impact on production, the environment, your assets and certainly on your reputation. No one wants that on their conscience.
The underlying organizational culture and safety mindset determines the degree to which safety is integral to everyday thought processes and work habits. That’s why creating and championing a “safety first” mindset must be everyone’s job.
What are the cultural barriers to 100% safe operations where you work? We can start by asking these five questions:
1. Is there such a thing as an “acceptable risk”?
We take risks every day. We cross the street, play sports, ride in automobiles or fly in airplanes. For those of us in automation, our risk factor increases while at work. One reason we get hurt is the belief that we can get away with an unsafe practice or take a shortcut “just this one time.” For example, you’re working on a project and you know you should get a co-worker to help you unload a heavy shipment. But, after all, it’s only 10 pounds over the recommended weight limit, and no one is available right now to help. You don’t want to slow down your work – you feel strong and in good physical condition. So just this once, you unload the overweight boxes by yourself. Maybe you get hurt and maybe you don’t. Is this an acceptable risk where you work?
2. Are habitual risk-takers tolerated?
Perhaps it’s just human nature to believe we are so experienced at our jobs that we’re immune to accidents or injury. When we really do know our job cold and perform the same tasks repeatedly, we may begin to feel comfortable taking more risks as our safety mindset erodes. This false confidence can cause us to grow complacent in our safety practices. When the status quo involves taking even small chances routinely, the culture works to heighten rather than reduce the risk of incidents. Is it commonplace at your workplace to take shortcuts that put you and your facility at risk?
3. Is lack of personal responsibility condoned?
Industrial safety starts with learning best practices, applicable laws and regulatory requirements. Being properly trained and aware of your own safety and that of your co-workers is paramount. Getting proper training and information before you begin a job is your personal responsibility – for yourself and to keep co-workers out of harm’s way. Even if you’ve been trained and are experienced – and even if you’ve witnessed accidents before – complacency can slowly degrade your vigilance. Is your corporate culture lax or infrequent with safety reviews, training, updates and monitoring? Do they fail to communicate safety records and concerns on a regular basis?
4. Are company values communicated properly?
Valuing gain in either time or money over the safety and care of people is a policy that no respectable company would promote or knowingly tolerate. However, the daily focus on achieving a certain gross profit or margin on a product or to meet schedule may give automation workers the impression that it’s okay to cut corners to achieve this so-called “success.” Under pressure for profit or schedule, have you ever bypassed a safety process or rule because it just seemed that following the right procedure “cost” more in time or money than it was worth?
5. Do employees feel empowered?
When budget and schedules drive operations, it can be difficult for a worker to consider shutting down operations for a perceived safety risk or minor issue. There can be fear of retaliation, repercussions or embarrassment for reporting observed safety violations or refusal to perform a task that doesn’t seem safe. Fear of negative opinions or management’s reaction when they make the tough call to stop work or shut down a process could ultimately cost everything. Does your corporate culture support behaviors that are safety-conscious and responsible to yourself and others? Does everyone know, understand and believe they have “stop work” authority at your facility? Would you feel comfortable picking up the phone to report a safety risk to upper management and then refusing to continue work until the risk is eliminated?
Creating and maintaining a safety-conscious culture in the industrial workplace is critical to protecting our people and living up to our responsibility to provide them with the safest working conditions possible. We all have the right to work where safety is known to be the number one priority over profits, scope, budget or anything else. We must focus on creating and ingraining a cultural mindset that promotes safety to every person in the organization regardless of their job function. An integral safety-conscious culture requires an organized company-wide effort, taking every opportunity to emphasize and reinforce the safety mindset.
To be effective, a safety policy should be simple and easy to internalize. I have always promoted this one simple rule: Don’t get hurt yourself and do everything you can to keep other people from getting hurt.
Here are five key thought processes you can use now to help you move toward a culture that keeps safety top of mind for everyone:
1. How much risk is acceptable? Zero.
There is no such thing as an “acceptable risk” when it comes to industrial safety. The slightest tolerance for the side-stepping of safety procedures and processes pierces the armor of safety on the job. Managers must continually communicate a policy and, just as importantly, an attitude of zero risk tolerance. Habitual risk-takers must be addressed, and when the corporate culture screams “Safety Above All,” the offender will learn that side-stepping safety policies is no longer tolerated. Teaching, training and encouraging automation workers to look out for themselves and for each other creates an environment based on trust and caring, and when people care about each other, they take more care in everything they do.
2. Teach, train, educate. Repeat.
It is management’s responsibility to mandate that training and job-related information are not just “available” but are required learning. Automation professionals are working in areas where many things can go wrong. Safety should be a key consideration in every activity whether in the office, in the plant or in a mill. Before a crew member starts a job, questions that highlight safety risks should be answered: Are you trained for it? Have you done this before? Is there any reason you can’t perform this task? How many consecutive days have you been on the job? A pervasive safety-consciousness culture promotes training and preparedness as everyone’s personal responsibility.
3. Think outside the job.
Process automation is a combination of people and machines. The machines stay in their assigned areas, but people do not. The right corporate culture promotes safety in the minds of our people beyond the time they spend at work. Safety awareness should expand to the health and safety of people whether they are on the job or enjoying their free time. It’s just as important to be safe when on holiday as it is on the job come Monday morning. Employees should feel that any injury or risk, whether at home or at work, deeply matters to the company and to their co-workers. Teaching personal safety in addition to industrial safety can reduce on-the-job incidents as well as accidents on leisure.
4. The right values: Safety doesn’t cost, it pays.
A corporate culture that values people over material goods, services and profit is paramount to safety on the job. A strong value system never allows budgets or scheduling issues to take precedence over the well-being of people. It never costs too much to play it safe, especially in an environment where even a small risk can produce a catastrophe. The pay-out of safety is first and foremost the health and soundness of every worker. In addition, it saves lost time for injuries, stops lost production, guards assets and protects the reputation of the company. It pays big dividends in the trust of employees, cooperation and caring among co-workers, lower insurance costs, and many other intangibles. Safety doesn’t cost. It pays.
5. Empower people to work safely under all circumstances.
Our employees and even our contractors and visitors must feel empowered to walk away from any situation where they observe a safety risk. Everyone must know, believe and understand that they have the authority to STOP WORK in any situation where they feel a risk exists. Corporate policy and communications should be strong in stating that no one will have to face retribution, retaliation or repercussions from anyone on the project or in management at any time for reporting a safety issue or refusing to perform a task that they feel is unsafe. Our people must know to a moral certainty that even if they are wrong, there will be no negative consequences for pointing out a safety issue, refusal to perform an unsafe task or stopping work for a safety-related reason. Empower your people with a safety mindset and the authority to live by it. Safety risks are inherently unacceptable: If it isn’t safe, just don’t do it.
If you’re looking for takeaways here, it boils down to this:
- Don’t get hurt and do everything you can to keep other people from being hurt.
- Safety doesn’t cost. It pays.
- If you don’t think it’s safe, don’t do it.
We must all be passionate about safety and constantly reinforce it within our collective consciousness. It’s one thing to say “safety matters”, but it’s another to have it indelibly etched into the mind of the workforce so that it is second nature for them to take care of themselves and their team members every day on the job. We stay safe together. Safety as a way of life is a cultural mindset that can be ingrained and built upon year over year.