Corporate structure, fear often mask need to discuss safety practices

March 5, 2013 By    

How visible are safety commitments at your company?

When I made a commitment to being a safety advocate for the propane business, I was naïve to think that those who care would speak out. Support and feedback on safety leadership issues are often hard to come by.

You’d be surprised by the few who write with comments, but you’d be even more surprised by those in powerful positions who fail to become safety advocates. Their commitment to safety is often invisible.

One would hope that there are thousands of closet safety folks making daily safety commitments. The formal corporate structure can be a tough place to come out of the safety closet. Anal attitudes about business propriety and safety secrecy make it tough for those who care to share.

An employee’s authentic concern can get blown into a whistleblower label faster than Sam McTier can pitch a new product – and we all know that is fast.

In one of my recent newsletters on winter driving tips, I asked for and received great suggestions from all over the country. Marketers and state executives alike shared selflessly. I believe those ideas prevented accidents nationwide.

On the other hand, many of those comments were anonymous because they could not get approval from corporate. Safety can be a proprietary process for fear of legal ramifications down the road.

I remember 35 years ago, I put an ad together for our insurance agency that read: “Hire the propane insurance experts.” My boss at the time questioned being so forthright.

“What if we make a mistake?” he would speculate. “What if they sue us for saying we are experts?”

It was true then and it is true now that we all own the dog when it comes to the safety aspects of our company’s reputation. We are expected to do our best. If you make a safety mistake in the propane industry, there is a good chance someone will sue you.

Why not influence the process at your company by being visible when it comes to supporting safety standards designed to save lives, protect your bottom line and your reputation? Such visibility does not happen often enough because the propane industry can be a cynical business.

There is a strong undercurrent of corporate attitude that cares only about gallons sold, acquisitions or controlling market share. Many a safety leader is considered to be just in the way.

It is time for leadership to put on some grown-up safety clothes and make safety efforts memorable rather than invisible. I can see the steam blowing out their corporate ears if they read such “blasphemy.” However, such arrogance and ignorance can and does contribute to accidents.

Many years ago, I had a large client whose arrogance quickly turned to humility when the initial lawsuit after an accident exceeded the combined values of their insurance limits and the company.

Prior to the incident, the marketer’s business was a team of independent thinkers whose only concern was the bottom line – or so they thought. It turned out they failed to achieve safety results and neglected the bottom line because they had an invisible corporate safety commitment.

After the accident, there was great concern about how many independent thinkers continued to act outside the codes and regulations. How many weak links were still out there? Could they get their attention and retrain them in time?

Those managers who have the courage to make safety a visible process at their company may run into resistance from employees. This is a natural occurrence. A cat that jumps on a hot stove may never jump on a stove again, whether it is hot or cold. Likewise, your employees may ask, “Do they really mean it this time?”

Take a few minutes to honestly acknowledge how visible safety efforts are at your company. When your safety commitments are visible, you are less likely to be accused of being the emperor with no safety clothes.

Jay Johnston (www.thesafetyleader.com) is an independent insurance agent, business consultant and safety leadership coach and speaker. He designs and implements risk management programs. Jay can be reached at 952-935-5350 or jay@thesafetyleader.com.

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