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March 13, 2017
CEOs impact performance through safety commitment

Leadership commitment is the apple pie and motherhood of safety and health. When leaders care, and demonstrate that care, it sets the tone for the entire organization. Without the dedication of those at the top, it’s unlikely—some say impossible—for a business to grow the kind of culture that leads to continuous improvement and sustainable safety excellence.

When the National Safety Council announced its 2017 CEOs Who “Get It,” we were eager to meet some of these outstanding safety leaders and share their stories with Safety.BLR.com® readers. We caught up with three who represent diverse industries and approaches. They’re an inspirational bunch, and if you’re so inspired, meet the rest at http://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/15148-ceos-who-get-it.

RYAN NILES, CEO, Niles Industrial Coatings, Fenton, Michigan

The first thing that catches your eye when you land on the Niles Industrial Coatings website (nilesindustrial.com) is a prominent announcement that the company’s employees have worked a million hours without an OSHA recordable incident. The more time you spend on the site, and with CEO Ryan Niles, the more you sense the depth of that commitment.

Headquartered in Fenton, Michigan, Niles Industrial Coatings is a third-generation, family-owned industrial painting contractor that opened for business in 1958. Customers include leading corporations like Dow Chemical, U.S. Steel, GM, and Chrysler®. A separate division performs scaffolding work. The workforce fluctuates seasonally from about 200 to about 450.

CEO Ryan Niles, who notes, “We’re really in the people business,” credits his father for setting the tone for safety many years ago. As the story goes, the elder Niles once asked a new employee what his job was. The worker answered “painter.” But Niles corrected him and said, “No you’re not. First you’re a safety guy. Then you’re a painter.”

While Niles Industrial Coatings is clearly motivated by doing the right thing, the business has also found that operating a safe workplace provides an important, competitive advantage. Workers confidently perform many tasks that other competitors cannot, or will not, because they know how to do the work without getting hurt.

Staying close and listening

Asked to describe his approach to worker protection, Niles says it’s all about staying close, both literally and figuratively, to his employees. He personally visits the company’s biggest jobsite—the Dow Chemical plant in Midland, Michigan—several times a week. “I’m there for the safety tailgate,” he says. “Employees know I care and that I take the time to listen.”

The same is expected of safety team members who are encouraged to be a caring presence and a resource, not to play the role of safety cop. Safety professionals are present full-time at the largest jobsites, and the department provides oversight to all project locations.

Another factor contributing to the company’s notable safety performance is “a habit of picking the right customers.” Niles points, for example, to the Dow site, where between 100 and 200 Niles Industrial Coatings employees work. “Dow is very supportive of our safety efforts. We share safety resources, such as speakers and training opportunities with them. It’s an open partnership.”

Niles serves as chairman of an occupational safety and health steering team that includes representatives from his company, Dow, and other on-site contractors. The group meets monthly to discuss safety, review any near misses, and share ideas, new technology, etc.  

Another example of the “staying close” philosophy is the daily safety huddle Niles leads for all foremen of crews of five of more workers. This meeting, conducted by phone from jobsites, covers lessons learned, safety communications, incidents, and techniques. When Niles first proposed the idea of the daily safety huddle to his foremen, he got some pushback. “They said they were all too busy, but now they’re really into it and share the ideas with the guys under them.”

Chief exec leads the charge

As a CEO who “gets” the importance of worker protection, Ryan Niles shared other observations that characterize his leadership:

  • “We always say a safe job is the most efficient job. If you’re doing it safely, it will be fast and productive.”
  • “Our biggest safety challenge is bringing in new employees. It usually takes 30–60 days for them to feel like they’re part of the family and to know that we’re not giving out safety glasses because OSHA or our customer tells us to. We’re doing it because it’s our culture and it’s the right thing to do.”
  • “We do a lot less directing and a lot more asking questions and empowering people to come up with safety ideas. When it’s their ideas, they're much more likely to embrace them.”

LARRY HOGAN, CEO, H+M Industrial EPC, Pasadena, Texas

H+M is an industrial engineering and construction company that partners on EPC projects (engineering procurement construction) throughout the Gulf Coast region. The projects are big and complex and could involve dock extensions, refurbishing of large storage tanks and pumps, and other “out of the water” activity. The company began as an engineering and design firm 28 years ago and, today, employs about 260, according to CEO Larry Hogan.

“We have to keep our people safe because, as a service company, they are our primary asset,” he explains. “We feel that not only can injuries be prevented—they must be prevented. And we expect an employee mind set that says safety is not a choice.”

A number of years ago, the company decided to up its safety game. They hired a highly experienced safety manager who Hogan says has had a tremendous impact on the company. Assisting him is a health and safety specialist who focuses primarily on communication. H+M assigns a dedicated safety professional to all of its larger jobs.

In addition to hiring key safety personnel, Hogan went through an evolution in his own understanding of safety. Having come into the construction business through engineering, Hogan says he was not knowledgeable about safety and basically assumed that workers behave safely as a matter of course because it’s part of their job. “For some people it is,” he now acknowledges. “But I learned that for others it’s not.”

Hogan came to understand that a safety sense and commitment must be instilled in employees. At H+M, this starts early. New employees are handed a succinct document that lists the company’s 10 lifesaving rules. These address everything from required tie-off at 6 feet or above, to the need for authorization before entering a permit-required confined space, to prohibitions against working on energized systems and altering or using an untagged or out-of-date scaffold.

Shining a light on C-suite safety

Safety Coach and Consultant David Sarkus believes an increasing number of executives are recognizing that safety is inextricably linked to business success. According to Sarkus, “Leaders may not need to know every detail about safety processes, but they need to ask the right questions and listen, then get the needle moving through the people below them.”

What does top-level safety leadership look like at successful organizations? Sarkus says you certainly see people pursuing safe behaviors like wearing personal protection equipment. And you hear them talking about safety regularly and openly. “Executives would also be talking about safety in a sophisticated way. They know the terminology and they talk the way safety professionals talk,” because they’ve been educated by them. As well, they understand the need for reporting and sharing near misses.

In businesses where safety comes from the top, you would also expect to see safety metrics posted and visible to employees. And if the metrics show a particular issue of concern, leaders know how to intervene and make changes needed to improve the downstream measures. Safety-minded executives must be aware of, and support, metrics used to hold managers accountable for actions that will lead to fewer incidents and related losses, Sarkus adds.

On the bottom of the document is a paragraph that describes employees’ stop-work authority. It differs from similar documents by other employers that empower employees to stop work if they encounter unsafe conditions. The H+M version describes the employee’s “obligation to stop any task or operation where concerns or questions regarding the control of health, safety, or environmental risks exists.”  Employees must sign and date the document as a personal statement that they will work safely with a “brother’s keeper” attitude.

Cards and champions

Safety affirmations are important, but they’re not enough. H+M has developed a robust safety and health program that starts at the top and engages employees in a number of ways. Every quarter, a safety champion is selected by safety personnel and supervisors. The individual gets bragging rights and recognition gifts like cash and a fire-resistant jacket. Several times a year, company and safety leaders identify a work group that’s gone above and beyond safety expectations. They’re singled out for recognition and a special lunch.

Employees earn daily recognition through a field safety observation program that goes by the name TIP for “Take It Personal.” Employees at all levels are expected to regularly complete TIP cards that identify coworkers’ safe or at-risk behaviors. Regardless of the conclusion of the observation, the observer is encouraged to keep the contact positive. The cards are collected by members of the safety staff who analyze them and report on trends and corrective actions.

H+M conducts ongoing health, safety, and environmental audits and has developed an effective employee orientation and safety training process. All incident investigations require management review and tracking of action items through closure.

Chief culture change officer

The culture change begun several years ago at H+M has yielded positive results, including an exemplary safety record. Hogan points to several contributing factors:

  • A demanding contractor/subcontractor prequalification process and ongoing management of the relationships
  • Leadership site visits and management walk-throughs
  • Consistent measurement of safety strategy, plans, and standards to drive continuous improvement
  • A checks-and-balances approach to ensure that the safety process addresses gaps related to the work, the work environment, and human factors

MAJOR GENERAL ANDREW MUELLER, chief of safety, United States Air Force (USAF), and commander, Air Force Safety Center

Major General Andrew Mueller oversees about 1,500 safety professionals throughout the Air Force—half enlisted and half civilians. At the Air Force Safety Center, he leads 130 safety specialists who work and train in four disciplines—aviation safety, space safety, occupational safety, and weapons/nuclear weapons safety.

Mueller sees his chief responsibility as setting policy that enables the most efficient safety programs to be rolled out, commandwide, at the lowest possible level. “My approach is to make safety personal—to encourage personal responsibility for safety, and to encourage proactive measures, not waiting to see if we’re safe by a lack of mishaps.” Mueller says that, too often, leaders focus on safety after a mishap, asking what could have been done to prevent it. Instead, he prefers to focus on measurements that prevent mishaps from ever occurring.

Mueller is among safety professionals who retain a belief in zero. He believes the quest to eliminate on-duty mishaps can be achieved, but only with a proactive, positive approach that emphasizes personal responsibility.

Familiar challenges, unique mission

Asked about the unique challenges of leading safety within the military, Mueller says one of the biggest he faces stems from demographics. “In the Air Force civilian population we have a more mature workforce that’s more adapted to procedures and comfortable with what they do.” The result is that the older workers tend to become complacent about safety compared with younger workers.

Another challenge familiar to safety professionals in many industries is a high turnover rate. This is due in part to relatively short Air Force enlistment cycles. To address this, Mueller challenges his staff to make sure their safety messaging is as fresh and compelling on the first day of their command as on their last day. And he encourages them to develop a personal leadership style that will resonate with the disparity of ages within the USAF workforce.

Less familiar in a civilian setting is the requirement to instill safety in the minds of individuals “who willingly accept risk with confidence.” Mueller acknowledges that those who join the military may be more comfortable with risk than other employees. Hazard recognition is one hedge against that dynamic.

For example, airmen tasked with maintaining multi-million-dollar aircraft must be fully aware of the hazards and procedures to prevent those hazards from turning into mishaps. The stakes are high, and the quality of training and equipment provided must be high as well.

According to Mueller, the same expectations that apply when Air Force personnel are working at their home base guide those deployed in war zones. “One of our pillars is to provide safety education and training so that we instill the same habit patterns at home that, if followed, will keep young airmen safe even in the toughest of conditions,” he adds.

He offers the example of placing a chock underneath a tire to keep an aircraft from rolling during maintenance. It could be tempting to avoid this simple precaution in a war zone where refueling or maintenance must be accomplished quickly. But Air Force training emphasizes the importance of working the safe way, regardless of the environment. The approach seems to be working. Mueller says the Air Force does not see higher mishap rates in deployed operations than at home stations. In fact, in some cases, rates in war zones are even lower.

Tips from the top

Mueller also shared the following observations about the Air Force and safety:

  • The USAF is aligning its internal safety training with designations like the “certified safety professional” and “associate safety professional” to help personnel make the transition to civilian safety positions.
  • Through safety culture surveys, the Air Force has learned that mishap rates are lower when personnel feel better about their work environment. That leads to higher morale and increased productivity.
  • Most fatalities in the Air Force occur off duty. The Air Force sponsors opportunities for airmen to pursue potentially risky recreational activities in a structured environment. The branch also offers motorcycle safety training courses.
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