Safety is only absolute if it is driven by a top-down not bottom-up culture.

Creating a Safety Culture, Pt. 2

In the first article in this two-part series, we concluded that a company that successfully upholds a safety culture is more productive and generates more revenue than one that doesn’t. We also looked at different types of businesses and charted their progress on what we called the safety culture evolution curve. Here, we look at it from a material handling equipment end user’s perspective, as Novelis, a producer of flat-rolled aluminum products, creates a set of Safety Absolutes that could serve as a blueprint for others to follow.

A key part of Novelis’s safety doctrine covers the company’s global fleet of process cranes, which runs into thousands of hooks across North America, Europe and Asia. Two things were accepted at the outset of the program: first, that an engineering solution should always be sought over an administrative one. Truth is, you can’t argue with engineering, where there’s always a way of challenging what your boss is telling you to do. And people make mistakes. Second, electric overhead traveling (EOT) and other cranes shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum as, often, what is in proximity of the crane causes a failure or incident. Taken as a whole, United States EOT crane accident reporting reveals that runways, elevated work platforms like scissor lifts, misused fall protection equipment, untrained riggers, etc. are frequently the point of failure resulting in injury and fatality investigations. Not the crane itself.

With the volume of lifting equipment operated by Novelis here in the U.S., inevitably, OSHA was at the forefront of Novelis’s mind when creating these Safety Absolutes. Importantly, OSHA has two ways of writing violations: either by violating a bright line regulation, or by General Duty Clause. The bright line regulations are about a 20/80 mix. The 20 is rules that OSHA has written, while the other 80 are industry-generated consensus standards incorporated by reference and thus given the full force of law.

As the clause says, each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees. Each employer shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under the act. And each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to the act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct. Most people misunderstand the clause to mean that OSHA can write you up for whatever they want. That’s a gross over-simplification

In the previous article, we debunked the myth that safety policy is the same as safety culture. It isn’t. Policy is a principle that is proposed by an organization; culture is the adopted customs and behavior embraced by an entire workplace or company. At a business where safety is culture, everyone is engaged in keeping the operation, and each other, as safe as possible.Top-down safety leadership is a driving component of holistic safety program. The Safety Absolutes are a perfect example of a top-down component at work.

Many readers might have worked at companies where a bottom-up culture has certainly driven some safety gains, but it can only go so far. Safety teams and councils might be set-up to raise safety levels and highlight areas where urgent improvement is required, but unless CEOs, CFOs, shareholders and all stakeholders are involved in a safety culture, it will never be absolute.

Absolutely safeIMG_8325

So how might a business look to create its own Safety Absolutes?

It’s prudent to start with the low-hanging fruit. Inevitably, a business that doesn’t have a top-down safety culture will experience more safety incidents than one like Novelis; they might be called SIFs (Serious Injuries or Fatalities). These serve as great signposts to areas that need attention. If three people have tripped over the same step this week, you’ve guessed it, that step is problematic. It should be removed, replaced, made more visible, etc. If diagnosis points to recent shock loading of cranes at three different sites, training and competence is evidently lacking.

As an aside, people overlook the fact that lifting gear can be overloaded and damaged even though the weight being lifted is less than the working load limit (WLL) of the crane, hoist or rigging item. And, as discussed, they look in isolation at the crane or hoist as the thing that feels the full force of a shock loading incident. In reality, the rigging gear (the equipment connecting the load to the crane) is often much less well equipped to survive such force and is exposed as a link in a chain of lifting equipment.

Companies will likely find that a safety overhaul becomes a two-pronged endeavor. As the low-hanging fruit is picked, an over-arching strategy will be implemented that covers items that might not have led to incident (yet) or where improvements can be made. A global business, like Novelis, must ensure that its products and people work to all the relevant authorities but, really, the Safety Absolutes, or another company’s version of them, will become a ‘best of’. If International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or European Materials Handling Federation (FEM) drives a safety standard beyond that of OSHA or the General Duty Clause, then, provided it makes sense to do so, it can be rolled out as company best practice globally—from Seattle to Shanghai.

Because Novelis is a growing and innovating company, there’s no project completion date for Safety Absolutes—ever. Processes evolve and new concepts are introduced. In industries that operate with a high degree of autonomy—the material handling equipment supply and repair sector is one—we must constantly be on our guard not to slip back into unsafe working practices. Things happen along the way too, which require those responsible for safety to be ever flexible and vigilant. Think about what happens when a business is acquired, companies merge, or an expansion takes place. Making people wear the same uniform doesn’t mean they fit a culture overnight. In one recent example, a larger, super-safe company purchased a smaller one that wasn’t up to speed. It was a case of making immediate changes and then rolling out the wider best practices once the workforce was more receptive to it.

In conclusion, you don’t need to call your program the Safety Absolutes or your accidents SIFs, but you must accept that the top-down component is an important part of making safety cultures work. Especially in the crane industry, you must also embrace engineering over administrative. Reality is, this sector is old school. That’s great—it’s part of its charm—but it also means many companies are living today by the safety standards of our grandfathers. Imagine if that trend was replicated in the automotive or aerospace sectors. We must continue to push for wider utilization of smart technologies and automation.

About the Author

Responsible globally for the on-site assessment of cranes and lifting devices, including managing standards development / implementation and mentoring and coaching of senior crane personnel. Tim is also the subject matter expert for cranes and below the hook devices in terms of development of design and general specs, identification of new technologies, and improvement of maintenance and reliability practices. Tim’s key responsibility is to drive the elimination of crane serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) throughout the regions. Tim has performed this role within the aluminum industry for nearly seven years and has held various titles with regards to mechanical and automation engineering disciplines within the manufacturing sector for 18 years. He has presented at the AIST Crane Symposium and hold an A.S. in Computer Integrated Manufacturing Technology (CIMT) and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University.

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