June 18, 2013
When it comes to safety, doing the right thing may not always look like doing the thing that is going to lead to the fastest production. Sometimes it means taking an action that might seem counterproductive, but could lead to the prevention of injury or, in some cases, even fatality.
Recently, I spoke with JMJ Senior Consultant David Engle about the concept of "doing the right thing" when it comes to safety on the job. With over twenty years of safety consulting experience, David is one of the most dedicated, thought provoking consultants I have met. His deep-seated commitment to the well-being of everyone he works with is evident in nearly every conversation I've had with him, and this one was no exception.
In our conversation, we explored doing the right thing, how to shift attitudes about stopping work to prevent injury, and how a cultural transformation can occur where everyone on a job takes responsibility for safety--supervised or not.
JF: At JMJ, we have this concept called “doing the right thing.” Could you explain what this concept means and how it applies to our work?
DE: Well, first of all, let’s talk about it within the context of people not getting hurt. When we say “do the right thing,” that could cover a lot of territory. I want to restrict it to “what does it mean to do the right thing in terms of making sure that people do not get hurt and people go home every day unhurt or perhaps even in better shape than when they came in?”
My work recently has opened my eyes that doing the right thing is not just about making sure people do not have what are called acute injuries, which are injuries like cutting your hand or tripping on a hose.
Doing the right thing also has to do with chronic injuries where people are spending years changing out parts or installing parts or doing any particular action over and over again; for example grinding wells on a welded part or fastening steel together with bolts. Those are repetitive tasks that can also lead to people getting hurt.
Doing the right thing is also about addressing conditions or behaviors that might get people hurt. An example of this is someone using a grinder to grind a part and we see that person using the grinder in a way that is not necessarily going to get them hurt right this minute but if they keep working that way for years it will eventually cause them to have a longer term kind of condition. Part of doing the right thing, too, is stopping the person and making sure they are taking their rest breaks and they are doing things that will keep them from getting hurt either right in the moment or over a long period of time.
JF: When you’re talking about doing the right thing, it sounds like the sort of thing where someone might say, “of course we should do the right thing, but I can’t make sure everyone does the right thing, can I? How do I make sure everybody does the right thing?” How does a manager ensure that their culture is going to work like that?
DE: Well, that’s a great question and I don’t think it has an easy answer. It really doesn’t. It requires multiple actions, multiple practices.
As a manager, I’m gauging those that work with me and for me to make sure there is a constant drumbeat that “this is the way to do this work correctly,” and, “we really do not want you to hurt yourself. We mean it and if you have to pause or stop work in order to address that it’s not the right way to be doing it; that’s okay, you will not get into trouble.”
I gotta tell you, in my 40 plus year career in this construction industry, the thing I am most proud of is what we did over the last year and a half in safety.
To me, it’s interesting in our work that transformation for an individual can happen very quickly. They are seeing the world one way and then they see the world another way and they come up with a whole new set of actions.
And in terms of doing it the right way, it’s a person seeing that the way they currently do it is going to lead them down a path that is going to potentially affect them and those they care about and their family and their work life and their outside work life. They see it’s not worth it anymore and they begin looking for doing it the correct way, doing it the right way, and that can happen very quickly; that can happen in almost an instant.
But then, for us to have enough people engaged in action and practices in the workplace where even people who have not had that transformation are drawn to doing it the right way, that is the culture shift. So when we ask how do you do that and how long is it going to take, that culture shift, I can’t give you an easy answer; it could take some time.
It depends on where we are starting and who we are working with. If the whole workforce has been taking shortcuts and has always been following production goals and has never stopped work or paused work in order to address unsafe conditions or unsafe acts or unsafe situations, then it is going to take some work to have them see that managers really mean it when they say safety is their core value and really mean it when they say “we do not want you to get hurt and we want you to do it the right way.”
JF: So, you’re saying that it is important to recognize that stopping work has a lot of value and it’s important to see stopping work as being a productive and necessary part of the process? Do you ever encounter skepticism to this idea that it is valuable to halt work? If so, how do you respond to this skepticism?
DE: Well, yes, there is skepticism such as, “Yeah, that is what is coming out of your mouth, Mr. Manager or Mr. Person in Position of Authority, but I know what you really want and I know that if we have layoffs or a downturn in the work, the guys you are going to keep here are the ones that are going to produce the most--even if occasionally someone is hurt.”
That thinking is very difficult to change because people have been exposed to a culture of production for years. So, to combat that skepticism is a matter of people in positions of authority (not only them, but starting with them) demonstrating that they mean it, by modeling it in front of people.
I can give a very clear example of this:
There were parts that had come in to a manufacturing facility I was working with and the parts were anodized using chemicals. Some of those parts had a color that was different from other parts, and, because of past experiences, there was a concern that some of those parts had been treated with chemicals that are toxic and are no longer used.
It would have been easy to just keep manufacturing and keep using the parts, but instead the person went ahead and told management, “I’m concerned about these parts being a toxic hazard.” Management immediately quarantined off those parts and immediately paused the work until they were able to determine which parts were okay to use and which parts were not.
There was a real possibility that they would not meet their delivery schedule when they said that. When you do something like that, it sends a message that, “We really mean it; working on these parts, if they were chemically improperly treated, it is not safe and that’s not right. So we are not going to work on them, even if it might affect delivery to subsequent customers.”
That’s one way you fight skepticism; and there are others.
JF: I have heard that we actually have a sense that if the culture is set up in a way that supports “doing the right thing,” people will do it whether they are supervised or not; is that right? Is that something that you have seen?
DE: Yes, I have seen workers work safely without supervisors because they have learned what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of keeping themselves and others safe. Said too simply, culture is code for what is acceptable and unacceptable within a particular group. We often find the worker being blamed for not doing the right thing without considering that the culture has massive influence on individual and group action.
JF: How does having that kind of culture happen?
DE: Well, it’s more complicated than this, but simply said, if we choose to say we are committed to the elimination of worker injury, then this is part of what it takes to begin shaping a culture in a different direction.
However, we have to demonstrate commitment with repeated actions or practices by people in positions of authority and by people that are not in positions of authority. They start following new practices that shape the culture and send the message that it’s okay, that it is acceptable to work the safe way in the future and that it is not acceptable to do it differently from that in the future.
That is pretty general. Here’s an example:
If I’ve got someone who is operating a mill and there is a part inside that mill that is rotating at 5,000 rpm and is being cut by a blade and that is all inside of an enclosure, but in the past it has been okay to have that enclosure be opened so that the mill operator can watch the part, that is a very unsafe condition. Someone could be killed if the part or mill failed. Clearly, working like this is not the right way.
So we begin having conversations with people about how they could get the work done the right way and not expose themselves to that kind of risk. And it may take a while before we see people doing the right thing out of reinforcement from management and reinforcement from their supervisors and reinforcement from other workers.
JF: But you’re saying that with time and diligence it does happen, you see that?
DE: Well, with time, diligence and commitment. All it takes is allowing one person to take a short cut, for example. It only takes one person being observed acting contrary to what is the acceptable way for other people to conclude that, oh, it must be okay to do it in this contrary way.
It takes the work of managers over and over again pointing out when people are doing things the right way, the safe way and pointing out when people are not doing it the safe way and then having it corrected over and over until people have an understanding that what is acceptable here is the safe thing rather than something else.