Just Putting It Out There – J’accuse


When employees do stupid things (an immature unsafe act) at the workplace whether an injury occurs or not, who is at fault? Is the boss to blame?  Who is responsible for upholding the culture of safety at the workplace?  All good questions and Blue Rhino is taking the position that the explosion at their Tavares facility last summer was all the result of bad employees not following the rules. Their defense against the 27 violations OSHA found during the investigation, which were linked to the explosion were due to “unpreventable/ unforeseeable employee misconduct” and the result of “isolated and unauthorized actions by certain employees and/or supervisors.”  So then it is the employees fault?

But doesn’t management create the culture of safety through the quality and frequency of training, response to safety issues along with the written “rules of the road” including the thresholds required for progressive discipline, reprimands and terminations.  When a manager sees an employee working without the mandatory PPE that’s required, isn’t the manager at fault if they ignore it?   So then the answer must be, it is managements fault!

There was a forklift driver in the shipping department on graveyard shift who wore headphones and listened to loud rock music while driving across the dock, back and forth loading trailers.  The new supervisor approached him and asked him to remove the headphones where upon he was informed that he was the first supervisor to ask him to do this. Apparently no one thought it was an important issue to stop and speak to him.  The supervisor insisted and was then told the employee might not be able to work as fast without the music.  The supervisor patiently explained his concern about him not hearing and backing over an employee and the worker’s quick retort to that was, “then they’ll just have to watch out for me, won’t they.”

That was a big red flag about the safety culture here, and it was troubling.  The icing on the cake was to come later that night when the foreperson informed the new supervisor how wrong he was to do this to the best and fastest worker they had on the shift.  The flabbergasted supervisor told her he couldn’t live with the guilt if he hadn’t said something and an employee was later hurt.  “Management doesn’t care about safety around here or care about us” she told him, “After a few weeks you’ll give up and be just like all the others supervisors.”

He stuck to his guns on the issue at hand but wondered where was the disconnect?  Everyone wants you to be a nice guy, just look the other way this time boss but you have to know damn well that if an employee gets injured on the job and it goes to a trial the attorneys are going to burn the supervisor for not saying anything to that employee let alone live with the guilt for not having said anything.  Now for our new supervisor, on to find the problem and the first step was to attend the monthly safety meeting.

It is a company mandatory monthly meeting.  There were handouts galore with images and pictures of various types of PPE and company rules as the foreperson read from a prepared script to deaf ears.  The employees were reading newspapers, playing dominos, doodling on their handout sheets creating very inventive new PPE.  No one heard the message of safety, no one did care on this level but the company could proudly display, hey, we have monthly safety meetings. If anything happens, it’s the employees fault.

p>Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
p>Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Alas he was intrigued by this challenge and had to look further into this so he made time and spoke to each employee on his shift as he shadowed them learning about their individual jobs. It is a perfect opportunity to learn about your team and what the issues are for them and he learned that safety issues were brought up to management but nothing was done to correct the issues.  There was no two way communication going on at all.  Concerns went up the pipe and vanished never to be heard from again.  A horrible message to send and it explained their attitudes and why people didn’t take the safety meetings seriously.  This was a talking safety but do nothing culture one of the worst kinds. It’s the type of culture that will generate a call to OHSA from that anonymous complaint.

He needed a way to show the workers he was serious about his commitment to safety besides just reminding them about wearing their PPE.  This was compounded when he found that safety was not enforced equally between the shifts as his team now wanted to know “why don’t the other shifts have to follow the rules like we do?”  He told them the company rules are safety glasses, ear plugs and hard hat.  There’s a reason for that rule, to protect you and I want you to go home the same way you arrived at work today, in one piece.  He knew he had reached them on some level as they starred back in shock that someone cared.

Our new supervisor lead the next safety meeting.  He went over the handouts with the staff for that month’s company safety topic and then… he pulled out a white board and marker and turned to the group and looked at them and asked, “O.K.  Let’s make a list of safety concerns you have.” WHAT?  They sat in stunned silence and then it began, a very slow trickle of issues and then they got into it, bouncing issues off each other and the list began to grew as well as their excitement.  “So now what?”  Well, which do you think are the top ten?  [Yes folks there were that many issues.]  We hammered out a list of 10 as a team as you could see they began to become comfortable with the concept of engagement.

The new supervisor had, through detective work, discussions, hit and miss and a lot of “can I buy you a coffee?” with other management staff was finally able to get into the company maintenance work order program.  The longest aspect of assembling the materials needed to do this was obtaining a sign on and password.  There were many hoops to jump and tricks to perform but the squeaky wheel does get oiled, after a few times anyway.  Now to put things into play.

As a individual work order was generated for each item on the top ten list he had marked them as “Priority – Safety Hazard”. Each work order had a identifying number, was in the system and visible to all.  He then created a spread sheet with columns, work order numbers, the repair issue and estimated completion date which was then prominently displayed so all the employees could see that their issues were valid and were to be addressed. Maintenance department was not pleased with the new supervisor since he had invaded their complacency and that created fear as they hadn’t been accountable for years.

The concern for the safety of people paid off as an excellent team was formed and they almost daily met their daily goals and regularly out-performed the other shifts and they continued to have lively engaging safety meetings.  Someone demonstrated that they actually cared and listened to them and they responded.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

So I think we may have an answer to the question, who’s fault is it when an employee does something stupid?  Well I would have to say, It’s everyone’s fault.  Somewhere the culture of the company has let the employees and itself down due to a disconnect which shouldn’t be a surprise when the culture is to talk about safety but doesn’t follow through when safety issues and concerns are brought to management’s attention. You don’t want to lose the employee’s trust.

You can change that!  I’m not going to lie, it’s not going to be easy and it doesn’t help when other superintendents, managers and department heads walk by an employee not wearing their PPE and don’t challenge it let alone wear the required PPE themselves.  You will be labeled a trouble maker, not a team player but remember YOU have control over your part of the company whether a warehouse, production line or office.  As part of management you set the standards for the operation.  Have safety tailgate meetings and allow employees to do the demonstration in front of their peers. Next time you have to take down a piece of equipment for repair turn it into a safety learning lesson including LOTO.  Be an example to all your staff and always wear your PPE.  Get involved with or create a safety committee.  Speak to the other shift supervisors, they may have the same experiences you’re having and soon another shift is following the rules and another and soon the whole plant.  It’s a culture change you can begin

The bottom line is, when it comes to workplace safety you want to do the right thing all of the time.  You can’t be Mr. nice guy one minute and then clamp down the next, you’ll loose credibility.  Be respectful, be consistent, be firm, be fair.  You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and if you believe that the grief you’ll get from an employee because you tell them to put on their safety glasses is some how worse than dealing with the life time of guilt because they’re blinded for life, then you may be in the wrong line of work.

2 thoughts on “Just Putting It Out There – J’accuse

  1. What a fantastic story. Well written and propably a page out of your elustrious career. What I love about it more than anything else, it’s a simply road map to employee interaction with safety. I have shared this article with all our facility safety coordinators along with a challange. Before their next safety committee meeting discuss individually with each member that they are to bring at least one safety issue to the next meeting. I’m sure we can create (if it doesn’t exist already) a a work order process to get these items completed at each site. Thank you for continuing my safety education.

    Sincerely – Dominic Del Vecchio, Corporate Safety Manager, Lawson Products, Inc.


    1. I am truly grateful for those very kind words Dominic and so excited that my blog has made such an impact. You have made my day and then some, I’m still smiling. Take care and thanks for being a safety advocate.


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