Building a Culture of Safety

Keep these four principles in mind as you strive for optimum safety standards for your utility

Building a Culture of Safety

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In 1971, OSHA was created mostly because companies and employees were not committed enough — or able — to take care of themselves or their workers without having a government agency tell them they had to and defining what that meant. Throughout its 40-plus-year history, OSHA has set minimum standards for safety and many inside the industry have looked at those as the maximum standard, still spending their energy trying to find a way around doing the right thing. Instead of striving to exceed the minimum standard they may focus on just barely meeting it. 

A culture of safety can transform an industry and a company, but a culture of safety has its safety programs led by leaders and people (regular Joes and Jills in any company) who believe in safety and its importance. Policies and procedures are simply used to support the culture, not drive it. Safety leadership starts at the top of an organization, however it must be equally supported across all levels from the business owners, to senior leaders, to project management teams and field supervisory personnel, to operators and laborers. 

A culture of safety is built on four principles:

Knowledge — Train employees using methods that allow them to understand safety requirements, how to apply them, and more importantly where discretion can and cannot be applied. This is a never-ending process and you should always be learning and teaching. Training and learning should be focused on exceeding the industry minimums. If you’re required to have OSHA 10 instead opt for OSHA 30. 

Experience — Knowledge without experience is not sufficient. A mentoring and on-the-job training program that allows leaders and employees to see and feel situations and how their knowledge applies leads to competency. Share lessons learned, near misses, or actions that were taken that worked to eliminate the risk or reduce the likelihood of risk. Share and learn from one another. The culture needs to be nurtured and this is done through trust and collaboration.

Authority — Without the authority to take action no program can work. In a culture of safety authority is primarily used as a last resort. Coaching and mentoring is often the best path to progress and safety. Have a clearly written safety program and policy and commend supervisors who take positive action. Prove it. 

Support — Without the support of company leadership in the form of time, resources like PPE or other critical safety gear, money that supports training programs and incentives, and most importantly a believable message and commitment to safety, there will not be a positive culture of safety. 

At the Ted Berry Company we have taken a dramatic shift in the culture of safety over the last 20 years. Not that we were “unsafe” before but we were in a different generation and safety was looked at differently in the past. We have adopted a safety slogan “safety for all of us” that has deep meaning to us and ties our safety and responsibility to our families and the community. 

I remember when I was a first-time supervisor in the early 1990s on a job site. The standing rule at the site was that hard hats were not required as it was on a solid waste landfill and the site manager deemed that there were no hazards. I was responsible for a crew of four (including myself) that was tasked with jetting and vacuuming debris from leachate collections lines and I recognized there were hazards that existed and directed my crew to wear hard hats in addition to other required PPE (safety glasses, steel-toed boots, gloves, etc.). This was met with great resistance. I was a young supervisor challenging the status quo, but I was certain I was making the right decision. The takeaway is we have all been in similar situations and it takes all of the four principles I described to have a culture where everyone knows what to do before it is even time to do it.

If you have daily or weekly toolbox talks, include your crew and generate discussion. Don’t look at the toolbox talk as something you have to do but something you want to do. Smile, have fun, talk, share — if it’s painful you are probably doing it wrong. People want to be included and want to be safe, but it has to be reinforced and led. 

Practice what you preach. If you have a hard hat and vest policy, then 100 percent of the time you have your hard hat and vest on first. Never act like you are above the rules or act as if it’s unimportant to you. 

What is your safety culture? I will never stop working on mine. It’s too important not to. And don't forget this works at home too. Before climbing up on the old rickety ladder to clean the gutter, think. You probably have a kid watching and learning from you.

About the Author

Matt Timberlake is president of Ted Berry Company in Livermore, Maine.


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