by Robert Pater

Want to become a safety person of steel? By maintaining and steadfastly communicating high expectations, enlisting the force of enough committed deputies and providing high-level training and needed equipment, you too can overcome major challenges, even leaping from worst to best.

Ever been up against a seemingly insurmountable professional challenge like this? Your employees are in an old plant doing heavy work that almost seems tailor-made for soft-tissue injuries. They lift and place firebrick to line vessels into which molten steel from a blast furnace is poured. And this isn't the red brick you see in house construction; each firebrick can weigh 100 pounds. The environment is hot and the work is heavy.

Your department has 44 total injuries/year with a relatively small work force. This, you find, is the worst safety record in the entire industry.

But that's not all. The workers are resistant to change. Many workers are highly experienced with long memories. Some employees appear to be just waiting for a fight, and have a "just get it done" attitude with minimal regard for safety.

Neal Whitt, area manager of the Brick Department in then-National Steel's Granite City plant and a safety man of steel, wouldn't settle for this situation. When safety-focused U.S. Steel acquired the plant, and with the support of his plant manager and others, Neal catalyzed a significant turnaround in safety performance and culture, to the extent that the Brick Department now has the best safety record in the entire industry. The department has achieved 4 years without a lost-time injury, and only two to three first aid cases per year for this period to date.

How Was this Accomplished?

Whitt accepted that certain things wouldn't be redone (old plant that still functioned) and focused on changing what he could. He made relatively simple ergonomic equipment purchases (e.g., hydraulic lift table to reduce some heavy lifting). But he didn't stop there.

Whitt continued to send the message that safety is critical, and that employees should take their time to be safe. And that attitude didn't eat into production. In fact, the Brick Department progressed to become more, not less, profitable.

Whitt strategically selected workers, such as bricklayer Tony Zedolek and hod carrier Shanon Autry, as well as supervisors such as Greg Martin, to become safety instructor-catalysts. They were thoroughly trained in a system of ergonomic behavior change that emphasizes practical mental and physical skillsets for workers taking personal control of their own safety.

The new training system's approach greatly contrasted to past command-and-control safety messages that too often bred pushback. The new training system emphasized personal choice. Importantly, it also demonstrated immediate improvements in strength, balance and lessened tensions that even the most skeptical people embraced.

Tony Zedolek reflected: "You're not changing them, they're changing themselves."

Learning from Peers

Peer catalysts are especially powerful because they best know their work and the people. Zedolek remarked: "We've got our finger on the heartbeat of this department."

Whitt trained enough catalysts to make a difference. "It's so important that you set it up properly," said Martin.

When a culture seemingly is set in its ways, you have to unleash and direct sufficient force to break inertia and move toward positive change. One or two change agents won't make a significant dent and likely will be worn down. This frequently happens in companies that are penny-wise and then wonder why their minimal intervention didn't make a real difference.

In contrast, Whitt made sure a relatively large number of safety catalysts were trained, in order to have a critical mass for delivering the new safety methods and message.

He also directed peer safety catalysts to continuously reinforce the use of trained ergonomic behaviors. The only way to make a turnaround with a resistant group is to go well-beyond one-shot exposures. Zedolek, Autry, Martin and other catalysts were given the charge and the time to remind workers on an ongoing basis to undo past unsafe habits and replace their judgments and movements with safer ones.

"We're constantly talking about this and keeping it on their minds," said Autry.

The catalysts and Whitt persisted despite experiencing some initial negativity. "It's not you, it's the change [that employees resist]," noted Zedolek.

But the results on all levels were extraordinary. In addition to statistical turnarounds, many workers who were the biggest enemies of safety became the strongest allies. Workers continue to thank catalysts for techniques and methods shared 6 years ago that have made a significant impact on their safety and well-being.

Robert Pater (rpater@movesmart.com, www.masteringsafety.com) is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.