On the Road: My Summer in Safety
“People want to be safe. If someone doesn’t follow safety procedure, then there is either a failure in the way the safety procedure is written or with the education of the worker,” explains a pharmaceutical plant EH&S director. “People don’t choose to be unsafe.”
Over the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to cross the US and interview EH&S professionals from diverse backgrounds, workplace experience and generations. From Seattle to Tulsa, I toured manufacturing plants, oil fields, construction sites and military aerospace facilities, all in order to better understand the culture of safety in America. My guides ranged from seasoned professionals with 40+ years in the field to recent college graduates just entering the workforce. Every professional had a unique perspective on the safety industry, but there were parallel takeaways that led me to better understand the current faces of safety.
Safety is a People Business
Over and over, the advice given to incoming professionals, either new college graduates or safety professionals with workplace experience, is to understand the need for communication skills in the field. “It isn’t the job of an introvert,” stated one Tulsa based EH&S manager, “safety is a people business.” Safety professionals must communicate, not only to their workers in the field, but also up the ladder to managers and decision makers.
When asked about the key to preventing workplace injuries, an oil service company EH&S manager offered, “Educating a worker; his safety is more important than any product we could ever produce.” This takes people skills. Safety managers must be able to communicate laws, practices and procedures, but they also must have the skill of listening. Employees have great insight into the safety of their environment. After all, they spend their days and nights working the same line, using the same machines or climbing the same scaffolding regularly.
We All Share the Same Goal
It may seem obvious that EH&S professionals all share the same common goal of “zero work injuries”. However, spending the last few months talking with managers across industries reinforced this principle even further. Every interviewee was asked why they entered the EH&S field. Time after time the answer was, “I wanted to help people.” This came from college grads that had been in the field for 6 months, to seasoned professionals that have spent their entire career trying to create a safe workplace for their workers.
A semi-retired professional in Boulder entered the safety field after a catastrophic accident at his manufacturing plant where he had worked the line for over 15 years. He watched his friends and colleagues die in an explosion that could have been prevented. “We believed we were safe because we had so few incidents. I saw the practices that failed, so I took an entry-level safety position and worked my way up. My background on the line helped me gain the confidence of the workers, and we were able to make company wide changes to how we approached safety.”
The Safety Industry is Evolving
In any industry, we learn how to improve over time. The business of safety is not an exception. It is hard to imagine OSHA was established only 45 years ago. Since then, the safety industry has improved through education, not only in the classroom, but also on the job. In 1970, there were 38 worker deaths a day compared to 13 today. While that is a 290% drop in workplace fatalities, EH&S professionals are still working to improve that number.
Industry leaders are introducing new ideas and tools to help safety managers mitigate risks and identify hazards and behaviors that lead to incidents. The evolution of behavioral safety is an excellent example of how the industry is continuing to educate our workers on how to identify and change unsafe behavior. “People want to be safe. If someone doesn’t follow safety procedure, then there is either a failure in the way the safety procedure is written or with the education of the worker,” explains a pharmaceutical plant EH&S director. “People don’t choose to be unsafe.”
Technology is Finding Its Place in Safety
From contractors working on the new Amazon headquarters in Seattle, to a lumber company in Northern California, safety professionals are identifying technology that can assist, if not outright perform, a number of functions for them. From analyzing incident and near miss trends, to saving worker hours spent on simple data entry. “I spend 40% of my time entering data,” one EH&S manager shared. “My time would be better spent on the shop floor identifying hazards and educating workers.”
The safety industry has been much slower to adapt new technology than almost any other. Every professional interviewed had their own theory on the why, but everyone agreed that there is a cultural shift happening. Companies are finally beginning to see the benefits of incorporating and applying innovative technology to their safety programs. “Inconsistency, things get lost in the shuffle, things aren’t filled out all the way…in addition to having an incident, people don’t want to have to come back and fill out a bunch of paperwork,” an EH&S professional shared. Using technology to report incidents, storing regulatory records, providing employee training on their personal device and maintaining certification logs is only the start to where innovation can take the safety industry.
Like most Americans, EH&S professionals have more similarities than differences. Not everyone started on the line or in the classroom, but regardless of where the journey began, they have arrived at the same place. The industry is adapting to changes in our culture, changes in regulatory requirements, breakthroughs in technology and studies in the psychology of safety. Because safety professionals are dedicated to improving the workplace for every worker, they are open to ideas and change that drive real improvements in the way we approach safety.
At Sospes, we continue to learn what industry professionals need today while anticipating the technology they will need in the future. We are adapting to regulatory changes and requirements to ensure our customers stay compliant. And we understand the need for communication and engaging a workforce in a company’s safety culture. I learned many things from my summer travels, but most of all I re-affirmed our commitment to providing the most innovative software solutions for managing worker safety and well-being.