Sometimes Less Is Better Than More
By Brian Rohwer
The evolution of North American business standards and practices has led contractors, workers and owners on a path to develop a more positive safety culture. To achieve a positive safety culture, we generally expend more resources within safety programs today than at any time in the past.
While you are unlikely to find industry leaders who have not bought in to improving their overall safety culture and performance, you are quite likely to find misuse of time and resources that have no direct correlation to either positive performance or building or enhancing positive safety culture. As with all other areas of business or project management, the resources placed into safety management must produce results. Sometimes, less is better than more. Some would go as far as to say that resource expenditures in several areas not only offer no real value, but can actually detract from the overall message of empowering individuals to take responsibility and accountability for their own safety, as well as those around them.
On some construction sites the mandatory orientation for all workers seems to go on forever. There are legal and moral obligations that must be met during any orientation, and there is a real benefit of reviewing expectations and consequences, providing information that every person on the project requires. This being said, there is no benefit in completing a six- or eight-hour orientation with project new hires. Even with really great people presenting the material and fantastic audio visual effects, you will never hold the attention of a construction worker for six or eight hours while they are sitting in a chair. We have all attended a few of these extended sessions where workers have fallen into deep reflective meditation. Paying people to conduct sessions that put your workers to sleep does not make sense.
There is no value in having someone from the payroll office walk in once in a while to change the video. The orientation should be conducted by your most senior safety person or knowledgeable construction supervisor so when valid questions arise regarding ground disturbance or entry into the pipe for back-welding or an internal repair procedure, that these questions can be answered. You waste time by placing a person who is incapable of performing the work in front of a group of highly skilled tradesmen. Getting the receptionist to change the video every 15 minutes, or read the slides word for word in the company Power Point presentation, shows the participants in the orientation what values you place on safety and improving safety culture within your company.
We know we have to have the morning tailgate/toolbox meeting, but what do we talk about every morning? The answer is simple. Do not make the safety meeting a separate part of the workday. It can and should be how you start every day with your crew, but do not stop the safety meeting and then talk about what work is to be accomplished that day. Talk about the work that has to be done and discuss the hazards involved in the work. Focus on a couple of key hazards that workers need to be aware of while performing their duties, and then move on. Reading a safe work procedure word for word without discussion from the crew is not accomplishing anything, in fact you are really being counter-productive as the workers mentally shut you and your safe work procedure off. Cover the key points of the job procedure if you must and ask for feedback from the crew.
The morning tailgate/toolbox meeting should be short (no more than 15 minutes long) and needs to encourage discussion. If there is no response, ask pointed questions. We need to challenge the crew so they pay attention. Many people have asked safety staff for a book of toolbox topics to be given to the crew foreman, as they do not know what to talk about. Reading a scripted toolbox topic from a list has about the same effect as reading a joke aloud to your crew from a joke book. Just because your list says that you should talk about ticks and wasps doesn’t mean that this is a suitable topic when it is minus-15 degrees outside with very few ticks or wasps presenting a hazard.
The real unfortunate part of this is that later that same day your crew tears down an overhead power line while loading a hoe on a low-boy trailer, and you have not discussed this topic for more than a week.
Toolbox/tailgate meetings need to be short and focused on a couple of relevant topics in order to be effective. Beyond this, you not only lose effectiveness, you actually make safety a joke to workers.
Worksite inspections and focused inspections can be very influential in enhancing safety culture. The best inspections or management walk-throughs are done in small groups that split up and spend some time talking to workers and understanding their tasks. Fewer people in a group help to make a connection to the workforce. A group of 15 people walking around the site intimidates workers and is not seen as a positive occurrence. When the formal written report is distributed ensure that items recognized as positive are prominent in the report. We do not have to “flower-up” things to look good, but we must recognize good behaviors in order to sustain a positive safety culture.
Fewer safety stand-down events are also better than more. When the average worker hears the word stand-down, it is generally perceived as very negative event. The perception is that “we are all going to be told how stupid we are again”. As an industry, we have to be a little more creative when it comes to communications. Gathering 700 employees in a yard with a muddy parking lot, a poor communication system that can’t be heard clearly over the diesel engines of the trucks and buses running in the same yard, and then long winded speeches about safety being No. 1, but having no real focus is not an effective use of time. Stand-downs are over-used, under achieving and have lost effectiveness. Stand-downs are not the “silver bullet” when it comes to repairing or improving safety performance.
Orientations, tailgate/toolbox safety meetings, worksite inspections and safety stand-downs are all recognized and time-tested tools that, if used correctly, improve safety performance and help develop a positive safety culture. These tools must be re-evaluated and undergo the same scrutiny as any other area of construction management. Just adding more resources to the safety budget does not increase performance or help build positive change, unless we ensure resources are going to the right place. Workers, supervisors and managers need to be empowered to create a positive safety culture together. We need to re-think the traditional tools in our arsenal and find a way to make them more effective, not just add more of them. Sometimes less is better than more.
Brian Rohwer is the safety manager for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for North American Oil & Gas Pipelines.
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