The Safety Justice League is a team of four dedicated safety professionals who aim to share knowledge about keeping us safe at work. With their combined skills and education, the team is leveraging social media, podcasting, and other new mediums to share safety messages. You can learn more about their initiatives at www.safetyjusticeleague.com.
With their mission of learning, diverse points of view on safety and a unique no-holds-barred way of storytelling, we thought these safety super heroes would make a perfect roundtable.
Q - What do you think will be the most important safety issues this year? What are the biggest challenges facing EHS leaders today?
NB - The most important safety issues this year are obviously surrounding COVID-19. Rethinking the regular boundaries of safety is necessary - how to keep employees safe beyond the work environment should be considered. In the case of COVID-19, what an employee does outside the work environment can directly impact the safety of all employees. Therefore, speaking to the hearts and minds of employees is so important. People speak often to the idea of a “safety culture,” but a true culture of safety goes beyond the workplace. A culture of safety impacts all activities that an employee participates in, both in the workplace and out. Safety is NOT about compliance and threats. It is about learning, educating and cooperation. The only way to reach and influence the life of the employee outside of the work environment is through partnership and brotherhood.
AF - This year is all about COVID-19 response and navigating forward, whether it's COVID-19 or the next pandemic. The biggest challenge many EHS leaders are already facing is ensuring they are consulted for business decisions related to pandemic and emergency response. For some reason, some EHS leaders have found themselves to be the last to know, and that is a shock. EHS professionals are at a critical time that can make or break how they are perceived and utilized in their organization. To begin, or continue, to influence executives, it may be advantageous for some EHS leaders to pursue continuing education in public health or emergency response. This education may or may not align with credentials the person holds, but still be extremely valuable to their success in the profession and at their organization.
JM - To follow up on Abby’s observation, my observation has also been that COVID-19 has shined a not-so-great light on the safety community. I won’t generalize and say that all companies are evil and only care about profits. But what has happened in the case of COVID response is that risk-based decisions in many companies are only left to executives and operations personnel. Many times safety professionals are not even consulted. Being relevant is our biggest challenge, so we can be in those discussions.
JM - One of the biggest issues every year is the focus on lagging indicators rather than leading indicators. While there is a lot that can be determined through an investigation on things that have already occurred, I believe so much more can be determined through a focus on the fact that people make errors. If we can predict those things through likely scenarios, it will assist us in making the changes that need to be made before there is an incident. How we respond to those incidents that do occur matters. If we “beat up” the employee for making an error that results in an incident, do we think they will report the next one? Or even the next near miss?
To Jason’s and Abby’s point, this brings into question both our current effectiveness and our perceived value as safety professionals. I’m not saying that we were more prepared to make those decisions than many who did, but it seems that if we were seen as more effective then we would have been the go-to resource for this present crisis. This is our chance to get better.
Q - What initiative(s) does your company have this year for EHS or you are recommending to your client companies?
NB - My recommendation for 2020 is to think of safety in terms of inputs instead of the traditional outputs. The worst problems are the ones you don’t know about because those are the ones you cannot fix. In order to know about problems in the work environment, a good safety professional MUST rely on employee reports. The safety professional is dependent on employee reporting to identify unsafe conditions or other problems in the work environment. Communication is the cornerstone of learning and learning is the heart of safety. It then naturally follows that an important aspect of any safety professional’s job is to identify and aggressively mitigate any barriers to communication. Traditional output-based safety relies on reporting of failures/incidents. More often than not, this results in the blame game and negative consequences for employees who are involved in an incident. W. E. Deming once said “where there is fear, there are incorrect figures.” In other words, where there is fear, there is no communication. Fear is a barrier to communication and to safety. Output-based safety programs spur fear in employees and result in underreporting. The best way I know to eliminate fear is to fundamentally shift the safety program from outputs to inputs. The other benefit that comes with input-based safety programs is that you can now promote positive, proactive, valued, and actionable behaviors rather than just react when a failure/incident occurs.
JL - I’m recommending that companies take the time to build relationships with their employees that go above and beyond just employer/employee. When an employee knows you care about their wellbeing for more than just the service they provide, the loyalty increases, the ownership of the tasks increases, and there is an overall improvement on safety success. Like Nate mentioned earlier, it’s a partnership.
Q - What have you learned from your hearing conservation and/or respiratory protection compliance programs?
JM - I’ve learned to look deeper than checking a box. The mention of these two programs conjures up images of PPE and most employers and employees don’t know much more about either than just that.
But it’s worth doing a deep dive. There is actually a lot of work required to get it right. Consider these tips - and by “tips” I mean “of the iceberg” - for properly implementing a hearing conservation program: 1) the goal for using hearing protection is to attenuate noise levels to a safe level, 2) the "best" hearing protection is the model employees will wear correctly and consistently, 3) remember that Noise Reduction Ratings found on hearing protectors are determined in a laboratory setting and actual noise reduction depends on how it is used and 4) "double" hearing protection through the use of ear canal inserts and the addition of ear muffs does not provide "double" the attenuation.
NB - Compliance is truly an awful word. It makes me think of the Robocop movie when the big robot aimed its giant guns and said something like “you have 20 seconds to comply.” If you seek compliance through expressed or implied threats, you will get compliant behavior ONLY when the threat of negative consequences is active. When it is not active - the employees are not being watched - then you will get noncompliance. Nobody likes being ordered, forced or threatened into compliance and it only leads to rebellion among some employees. The way I recommend to remedy this issue is by allowing employees to share ownership over the program. The safety person should not act as a cop or enforcer. Instead, the safety person should act as a servant or facilitator for the employees to help guide them. Once they have had the chance to help design a program they believe in, then adherence to the program will increase.
Q - What advice do you have for a new safety pro just entering the EHS field?
AF- Listen! Listen to the workers at your site, listen to safety pros in your industry and others, listen to podcasts and audio books that open your mind to new people, experiences, and approaches. Ask thoughtful questions. If you can do a little research to figure something out, do that first, and then ask a better question.
NB - First, don’t stop digging into safety from a philosophical standpoint until you identify your principles. Identifying some first principles in safety will really help when you are faced with a situation where you are not sure what to do. Always start by viewing a problem through the lens of principles to eliminate possibilities and then view the problem through the lens of practicality to identify the best path forward and ensure your solution is realistic. Also, like us, you will probably feel like you are alone in the safety world, but you don’t have to feel that way. Utilize the vast resources that are available to you. Build up a network on LinkedIn and obtain feedback that way. You can also reach out to us at safetyjusticeleague.com and listen in on our podcasts. I also run a website that provides OSHA recordkeeping answers at no cost called isitrecordable.com. Resources like these can serve you well as you progress through your safety career.
JL - Start by building relationships. Like Abby mentioned, focus on listening to the employees in the field and what they enjoy and how they do their job. The likelihood is that they have been doing it for years and are the subject matter expert when it comes to it. The last thing they want or need is a new safety person telling them how they are doing it wrong. That comes with time and trust. Instead, try asking this question, “Hey, I am new to this field, can you tell me a little about how you do what you’re doing?” This opens them up to talking about what is likely one of their favorite things to do, talk about what they do. This also allows the new safety pro to understand why they do it the way they do.
JM - Find a mentor, but understand your mentor is human. Even the wisest among us is still just one of us. Once you have a mentor, learn how to listen. Hear, process, then respond. Ask lots of questions - even the best mentor doesn't have the omniscience to understand all of your needs. Give them a hint once in a while. Also, have the courage to have hard conversations. Your mentor will respect you for it, and you'll grow as a result. Once you have your wings, learn to be honest with yourself, about yourself.
Q - What tips or tricks do you have for increasing employee engagement with health and safety?
NB - The tone of a safety culture is set at the top. If employees are fearful to report, your culture is ruined. Top-level managers should set the appropriate tone - that learning is the goal and not punishment or discipline. The reality of safety is once an incident has occurred you can choose one of two paths, but not both. You can choose learning, or you can choose punishment and discipline. Grant immunity to employees who report or provide information during investigations. The goal of safety is not to avenge policies that may have been broken. The goal is safety is to prevent people from getting hurt or even killed. Pick which is the most important to your safety program. If you pick the former option, then perhaps a career in safety just isn’t for you.
Safety is not something that should be done TO employees, but instead done WITH employees.
JL - Make it fun. There is already an influx of boring safety material that checks the boxes. That is the reason that the Safety Justice League does things the way we do, to have fun in safety. Be real. The last thing an employee needs is a “fake” person telling them what needs to be done. As I’ve mentioned, safety culture is built through relationships. Lastly, stop blaming OSHA for the “reason we HAVE to do this training.” That is a surefire way to lose interest.
JM - I totally agree with Jason when he said “be real.” Safety is often such a stuffy and dull field. I’ve often compared “selling” safety to selling used cars because workers instinctively don’t want the “safety guy” anywhere near them. That perception rests squarely on the shoulders of the safety profession and we can make things better.
While I would never argue against being agency compliant, I will argue until I turn blue that complying with laws does not always directly correlate with worker safety. Compliance is required, that is without question. But compliance needs to rest on the shoulders of organizations, not individual workers. Safety has been driven in this fashion for far too long and that’s why it’s stale.
There are three things people miss when trying to sell compliance as a fatality prevention measure. First, OSHA enforcement is directed toward companies, not workers. An employee rarely has any personal motivation to comply. Second, OSHA regulations are laws and written as such. Even if a worker was motivated enough to read them, there is nothing within them to evoke an emotional response powerful enough to make someone want to buy in. The rules may tell someone what they can or cannot do, but they don’t explain why or how. Third, compliance feels oppressive. No one wants to be told what to do. Workers need a reason to invest their energy and will likely resist if they feel forced, as Nate mentioned before. Asking them how they work, what makes their jobs more difficult than needed, and asking them what could kill them will go farther than citing any regulation ever could.
AF - I'm really big on micro training right now. While there's still a place for 4, 8, and 40 hours of training for some topics, micro training can help the safety professional communicate with workers outside of the training session and enhance what was learned in the classroom or other traditional setting. Micro training can take many forms: one-on-one conversations to give an employee a chance to demonstrate or describe what they learned, or gamified settings in which a worker interacts with an AI-backed learning management system or app-based training. I hope that more safety pros embrace micro training in which they can use shockingly brief interactions to reinforce training messages between training sessions... a worker could have "safety training" daily using this approach!
Q - What are your favorite resources to stay on top of safety trends? How do you continue to grow as a safety pro?
JM - I’m in a unique and very blessed position in this regard. Aside from being a consummate reader, web surfer and overall safety nerd, I have the privilege of being connected - both in real life and online - to some of the brightest minds in the Safety & Health field. I learn by talking, listening, and often interviewing those experts on the Safety Justice League Podcast.
AF - I use social media to see what other safety pros are using for gear, and what safety philosophies and best practices are being discussed. I don't subscribe to one safety theory or approach, but I do have a short list of people I consider safety influencers that I like to keep tabs on. I take the same approach with organizations - I follow construction companies, auto manufacturers, app-based services, and breweries among other organizations because I admire their approach to safety and communication. Though COVID-19 has wrecked most of my annual in-person networking plans that I look forward to each year, I'm finding that there's still plenty of networking occurring online, even some meaningful mentoring opportunities have emerged during the "lockdown."
NB - Speaking of networking, travel and networking is something we need to reconsider in the age of COVID-19. Safety conferences may never be the same. The landscape of the safety conference is now moving into the virtual space and since virtual safety conferences are in their infancy, the future is unclear but also full of potential.
Q - What changes would you like to see OSHA implement?
AF - Higher penalty amounts and increased transparency. I believe that a person should be able to learn as much as possible about an organization, think Glassdoor, but for safety insights related to incident rates and other metrics.
JL - Coming into the 21st century with their thinking and technology would be a start. I feel like OSHA has been a bit stagnant over the years. While I appreciate their approach of focusing on the companies to protect the employees, there is a negative association to OSHA which forces a negative association on safety as a whole. Safety doesn’t need to be considered the punishment, but rather the solution.