My State:
May 13, 2016
CEO proposes a new approach to safety and health

When business leaders embrace worker protection, it dramatically increases the likelihood that a safety process will be successful. In fact, OSHA and most experts consider support from the top an essential element, without which a safety initiative cannot meet its mark.

The authors of a new book take this line of thinking one step further, arguing that safety is essential to overall business success. This Compliance Report features questions and answers with Brian Fielkow, who coauthored with James Schultz Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield. The subtitle of the book, (to be published in early September and available on, is A Roadmap to Empowering Your Team and Growing Your Bottom Line.

A former corporate attorney, Fielkow is currently CEO of Jetco Delivery, Inc., a Houston-based trucking and logistics company. Fielkow is also a nationally recognized safety and corporate culture advisor.

Q. What’s the big idea of the book?
A. Our thesis is that the skills required to successfully lead safety are the same ones needed to lead outstanding operations—attention to detail, focused execution, standardized and disciplined processes, understanding of rules, meaningful metrics, personal accountability, and alignment around a group vision and mission. The best action an organization can take to align and engage employees is to make them feel valued. A culture of positive safety does just that. We believe the journey to safety excellence has to be a crusade, not a casual endeavor.

Q. Isn’t it pretty much a given that safety is linked with business success?
A. It’s still a struggle. People see safety as an expense, but in fact it’s an investment that pays long-term dividends. It’s not only the right thing to do but also employees want to work at a place where they know employers care. Customers are becoming more concerned about safety, too—they don’t want to do business with rogue operators.

Some people still like to break safety out from everything else, but I take a more holistic view: that safety, operations, business success, and profitability are one and the same. Those who refuse to change will set the stage for their own extinction.

Q. When you talk about “changing the way we think about safety,” what do you mean?
A. There are a couple of major points here. One is that no matter the size of the company, and no matter what the company does, there is one unifying principle—that safety is something we don’t do once in a while, and we don’t compromise it in the name of other goals. Safety is not a priority—it’s a nonnegotiable value, and our teams have to align around that. The next principle is that our safety departments can coach, teach, train, and mentor, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think that the safety department can actually make us safer. Operations—the people with their hands on the levers—have to own safety. That’s a new way of thinking, because in the past it was a game of cat and mouse; operations gets away with whatever they can until safety catches them. That’s complete nonsense. Think about the cost of an accident—everything from fines and higher insurance premiums to shutting down the company to attend an employee’s funeral!

Q. Could you describe your “Three Ts” for an employee-owned safety culture?
A. Sure. Treatment, transparency, and trust are the pillars of a healthy manger-employer relationship.
Treatment. Poor treatment manifests itself through the failure of management to treat an employee as a human being first and as an employee second. This leads the employee to believe that he or she is anonymous and does not matter. An employee who believes this will not embrace safe behaviors or other core company values. Good leaders understand that they need to win people’s hearts before they can win their heads.
Transparency. If employees believe that everything happens behind closed doors, they will be disconnected from the desired behaviors and outcomes the company wants to promote. Sometimes transparency is as simple as explaining the why. Many companies say, “Here are the rules, now obey them.” It doesn’t have to be put up for a vote, but you do need to explain the why. If people understand the why they are likely to support the process. If they’re left in the dark, they are likely to oppose. You can promote transparency by bringing a diverse group of team members into the decision-making process.
Trust. Recent research found that companies with high employee trust levels outperform those with low trust levels by 186 percent. This is a remarkable endorsement for why treating people in a just manner builds trust. If your workers know they won’t be punished for unintentional errors, they will develop trust, and that correlates to big financial benefits. Stephen Covey describes 13 common behaviors of leaders that build trust and allow them to maintain it.

  • Talk straight.
  • Demonstrate respect.
  • Create transparency.
  • Right wrongs.
  • Show loyalty.
  • Deliver results.
  • Get better.
  • Confront reality.
  • Clarify expectations.
  • Practice accountability.
  • Listen first.
  • Keep commitments.
  • Extend trust.

When the Three Ts are upheld, people have greater ownership of the job and of the safety mission.

Q. You also address the importance of bringing in the people on the front lines to build a safety culture. Would you say more about that?
A. Sometimes we overestimate what we can accomplish as managers or executives. So a core principle in the book is that you’ve got to bring in the front lines, the people who have all the opinions. They know where the risks lie and what to do about them. Managers have to know their front lines enough to know who the opinion leaders are. You can listen to them informally over coffee and donuts, or more formally by creating a committee.

At Jetco, we went to our driver committee and asked them to rewrite the old employee handbook (that nobody read) to create ownership in the process. And we converted our regular safety meetings from lecture sessions to small listening sessions.

Q. Accountability is a big theme in your book. How does accountability impact with safety?
A. Accountability comes in three flavors: individual, organizational, and peer-to-peer. One of the ways to encourage greater individual accountability is to make sure management does not cultivate an environment of workplace blame. Help your employees understand that those who act recklessly or take deliberate and unjustifiable risks will face consequences, but those who make an understandable or unintentional mistake will not be punished. Also, highlight the importance of asking questions. Explain that employees have a choice of whether to operate in a sea of uncertainty or ask for clarification. Once they are clear on expectations and procedures, they are less likely to make mistakes or fear admitting to them. 

To encourage greater organizational accountability for safety, management must ask three basic questions when something goes wrong: What happened? What went wrong? Who or what directly caused the problem? The critical question is, what are the underlying systemic processes or failures that directly caused or contributed to the problem?

As for peer-to-peer accountability, getting employees to hold one another accountable can be challenging. Many of us were brought up in an outdated parent-child management structure. We are victim to that old thinking that only managers should hold the rest of the team accountable. Urge employees to adopt the mindset that when something goes wrong they can choose to stand up and take responsibility for their part in the problem.

Help them recognize the downside of standing idly by. If an employee tells a coworker, “You’re not my manager. Mind your own business,” this is behavior we simply cannot accept. That employee needs to be coached, and if the employee refuses coaching, he or she is not likely to survive in a healthy safety culture.

Q. One of the risks you address is complacency around safety achievement. What’s the concern there?
A. Wilbur Wright said, “Carelessness and overconfidence are more dangerous than deliberately accepted risk.” Safety can be an unforgiving domain. Safety success in the past doesn’t guarantee safety success in the future. You can look through hundreds of transportation accident reports over the years and clearly see that even the most experienced, knowledgeable, and capable professionals are not immune. Good performance and an absence of accidents can promote complacency, which can destroy a culture of safety.

“Complacency creep” generally occurs silently and gradually. Ask yourself if your good performance is a result of a healthy culture, strength of leadership, team alignment, and good processes, or if the good safety is just pure luck. One characteristic that distinguishes good companies is the ability to have a balanced view of themselves. The leaders do not ignore the facts, even if unpleasant. They recognize the need to be obsessed with continuous safety improvement.

Q. The book draws a clear line between safety and regulatory compliance. How do you see this distinction?
A. Disconnect the words “safety” and “compliance.” They’re not the same. Take the traditional safety model and break it into three parts. The first part is incident and claims management. Anyone operating in any sort of a safety-sensitive business or advising clients who are in a safety-sensitive business must be proficient in this area should an accident happen. We [safety professionals] have to know what we’re doing in the area of claims management. However, do we really want to become professional claims managers?

The next part of the safety model is regulatory compliance. That’s part of staying in business. We can argue whether some regulations are good or bad, but we follow them because that’s key to staying in business and the nonnegotiable right action to take.

The third part is where the real safety dividends exist—by creating clear processes and managing behavior. For example:

  • Ensure your employees report a near miss without fear of retribution. This allows you to diagnose and prevent near misses so that an actual accident does not occur in the future.
  • Get out on the floor. Create a system of field behavior observations to ensure employees are following processes.
  • Develop an ongoing system of process audits. Be your own worst critic to find flaws in the system and areas for improvement.
  • Help every employee adopt a mindset of prevention and become personally accountable for it.
  • Ensure that your preventive maintenance program is disciplined and occurs on agreed-upon intervals. Saying you are too busy to do preventive maintenance is like saying you are too busy to be safe.
  • Your employee onboarding process must instill the idea of preventive behaviors from day one. Just because a new hire knows how to execute a given job function does not mean that he or she knows how to do this in your organization and in line with your values.

Q. Your views were shaped by experience transforming safety culture at one company where you faced a significantly uphill battle. What happened there?
A. We found that for the year 2000, there were 59 fatalities reported—15 on-duty employees and 44 nonemployees, and $150 million a year in workers’ compensation costs. We commissioned a companywide independent assessment, and the results were stunning. The vast majority of company managers rated themselves as A to A- on safety leadership effectiveness. 

The first step in our plan was to conduct a comprehensive gap analysis to identify what was driving the dismal safety performance. We identified gaps, including the fact that operating management believed they were too important to get involved in the details of safety, and the mindset that safety belonged only to the safety manager. Other issues included low expectations (the idea that “things happen”), an absence of metrics, and a reactive rather than preventive focus.

Based on information from the gap analysis, it was clear that we needed to start from the beginning. We needed to find a much more powerful engine to drive the safety culture going forward.

  • We made safety personal. No longer did we talk only in terms of numbers, we also talked about the people involved and their families and how they were impacted.
  • We “killed the sacred cows,” including the idea that safety belonged to the safety manager. Another was the victim mentality, “Poor us, we work in a dangerous environment. Accidents will happen,” which gave people a pass on being accountable for outcomes.
  • We identified the organizational role and the concept of organizational causes for safety failure; for example, senior management giving only lip service to safety and using the wrong metrics. The company was excellent at pointing fingers and assessing blame. They would fire or discipline the offender then move on without focusing on root causes and how to prevent the problem in the future.
  • We aligned with the “North Star” theme, establishing alignment around the rules of the game that defined how we were going to drive performance. The first group we enlisted was the senior team, followed by the general management team, including field safety managers. We established a doctrine of nonnegotiable rules starting with, “Safety has to be a core value, not just a priority.” Others included, “Zero is the only acceptable goal” and “There must be a leadership obsession with continuous improvement every day—a chronic unease with the status quo.”
  • We reallocated the field safety staff (more than 300 at the time) who were generally viewed as clerks who collected tolls, managed claims, and maintained forms. We eliminated most of the field safety jobs over 5 years and reassigned them into frontline operating roles. That enabled migration of the message into the organization, accelerating change.


Q. What happened next?
A. As a result of these and other changes, in 5 years, our casualty experienced had improved by about 75 percent. The culture took root, and people in the organization internalized the processes and assumed responsibility, holding themselves and coworkers accountable. At first, there was wide belief in the management group that pushing for zero casualties was wholly unreasonable. By the end of the year, about 60 percent of the operating locations had achieved goal zero. People were believers!

Early in the transformation, over 1,000 employees were out of work due to an on-duty injury. Five years later, this number was reduced to less than 100.

Due to the success of the program, the deductible levels for insurance were increased substantially—from $1 million to $5 million in compensation and from $100,000 to $10 million in liability. This saved millions of dollars in insurance costs and allowed us to manage clams with less insurance company involvement.

Our goal is zero casualties. However, until you get to zero, there needs to be an aggressive and well-managed post-injury process. Ours includes four key management oversight activities:

  • Recognize the financial impact of safety failures.
  • Manage return-to-work with meaningful transitional assignments.
  • Provide aggressive claims/legal management.
  • Educate the actuaries, and keep them fully in the loop regarding our new culture, plans, strategies, and measures. We invited them to our safety workshops, training sessions, and leadership meetings.

Q. Thanks so much for sharing your insight and experiences.
Good luck with the book.
A. You’re welcome!

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