Friday, September 12, 2014

a culture of safety

Someone on ask a manager recently asked for advice on creating a "culture of safety" (sorry, can't find the link now).

In the environmental biz, safety is A Big Deal, not because we're all intrinsically concerned about it (I mean, of course we are!), but because of the nature of the work and the clients. Most major clients (government, heavy industry, large corporations) in the modern era have found that if they have a problem (property/environmental damage, injuries, deaths), they can't just handwave it away by putting the blame on contractors and subcontractors. One way to mitigate some of those political issues is to have tough rules for contractors, so that if there's a problem they can say "we did everything we could". That's where we come in. Also, as consultants, we're paid to be experts. If the fieldwork is a mess of health and safety issues, it looks terrible to clients and potential clients, and will impact the ability to get and retain work.

In environmental consulting, we have something new every day. We have different field sites with varied environmental issues, a slate of different contractors, changing weather, and other random stuff that pops up (new neighbor who thinks the field crew is trespassing, you get a big rainstorm and your  staging area becomes uninhabitable, your contractor develops union problems, etc). So we can't keep safe by just relying on a static checklist.

A few things that can help create a culture of proactive safety:

1. Have a safety guru (or group) outside the lines of project/program management authority. My earlier discussion of safety/management conflicts of interest applies. This person carries out the safety program and is the point person for clients, contractors, and employees if there's a safety issue. The safety person conducts audits, encourages/regularly reminds folks of safe practices, and does post-incident evaluations. The safety person also coordinates the various trainings and medical exams the field personnel need (40-hour HAZWOPER, 8-hour refresher courses, OSHA construction safety courses, first aid training, and others as needed).

2. Field audits, preferably ones focused on practical solutions and not paperwork checks. Is the working area reasonably clear of tripping hazards? Do the contractors have all the safety gear (personal protective equipment [PPE], recently-inspected fire extinguishers) they need? Is there a safer way to do the work?

3. Reporting: we all know that incidents are bad. OSHA-reportable incidents are worse. But the best way to minimize the big problems are to catch the small problems that can lead to them. So there should be a mechanism to report small incidents and near-misses so that they can be analyzed and better practices developed. This can be tricky, because nobody likes to admit that something bad may have happened but didn't.

4. Lessons learned: if there is a safety issue, let the field staff know. Drillers used a novel technique that didn't work so well? Discuss it and the reasons why it failed. Someone hit a utility line? Maybe it's time for a refresher on utility mark-outs and indications of potential utility corridors in the field. 

5. Carrots/sticks: it's easy for a safety program to slide into a series of punishments: you missed something you should have, and then equipment broke or someone got hurt. You should have seen that coming and addressed it proactively. However, if there's an incident, the organization (hopefully) had a bunch of people working at the same time who were just going about their business in a safe manner. It was quiet because the result was something that didn't happen. It's a good idea to seek out and reward those folks who did something extra-safe, whether it was fixing a potentially dangerous situation or keeping their head and applying first aid/following the emergency plan when something went haywire. I'm personally not a big fan of applying "xx hours with no incidents" to everything and making that a big deal, because that's how small stuff and near-misses can be encouraged to be buried.

6. How much logistical/financial/timeline stress do you put on the field staff? Is everything a crisis? Do projects need to be completed no matter what? It's easy to talk safety, but if the field staff is running around like crazy, trying to squeeze in a million different things, it's easy to be distracted and for safety to be relegated to a lower priority. And shortcuts start to look more appealing.

It's not necessarily easy to create a culture of safety, especially when it's much easier to just do whatever's fastest/easiest/cheapest. But it's critically important in the environmental biz, where we juggle so many different things and we have the potential for terrible things to happen.

1 comment:

Silver Fox said...

At mines (for MSHA safety aspects of things), we often have besides real safety people/gurus (along with first responders and others with safety and health training), individual employees/contractors doing safety inspections -- of some areas daily, of some areas more like weekly or monthly. So we don't rely on a safety guru (though that person or group of people or department is necessary) -- everyone is in charge of a project's safety. For example, if I arrive in a core shed first in the morning at a particular mine, I might be the one to do the daily core shed inspection. And at another company, I'm assigned an inspection of an area (out of several possible areas) to conduct along with one or two other employees/contractors such that I do one about every month or every other month.