How one construction company turned its safety culture around using e-learning.
By Debora Babin Katz and Jon Kaufman
By the winter of 2006, the safety culture at Oldcastle Materials’ APAC-Missouri division was in a precarious state. The transportation construction contractor’s safety committee had disbanded and APAC employees, feeling frustrated by the management and lack of success of past programs, were wary of any new initiatives for operational safety.
The company’s recordable injury rate, though slightly lower than the industry average, remained at 4.7 per 100 full-time employees. Chris Schwedtmann, APAC-Missouri’s director of environmental health and safety, along with Brett Geger, director of human resources, knew the time had come for a radical change in the company’s approach to safety and employee motivation.
“Everything we had done before for safety incentives – gift cards, safety bucks, barbeques – was all based on downstream indicators or after-the-fact results,” says Schwedtmann.
Past safety approaches all heavily relied on the statistical results of groups of employees. They tracked, for example, how long a crew went without having a reportable injury or fleet accident. “The obvious problem with this – which we experienced – was it led to peer pressure. So if someone smashed their finger or got an injury, another employee would say, ‘Oh, don’t report that or we’ll lose our bonus,’ and then we ended up with the ‘bloody-pocket syndrome,’” says Schwedtmann.
In other words, the safety culture was not changing or improving, and it was difficult to track incident trends to discover the organizational cause of injuries because employees were hiding injuries.
Another challenge was the decentralized nature of APAC-Missouri’s business. The company maintains three regional locations and employs 685 people who are scattered throughout Missouri on numerous constructions sites. “We tried a variety of incentive safety programs but hadn’t found one that was easily administered throughout the entire company,” says Geger.
Motivation and Safety
“What we wanted was a [safety and motivation] program that would result in open dialogue,” says Schwedtmann. “We needed to get to the prevention stage instead of [reactive programs] that kept things to a certain level or at a plateau so we could never reach our ultimate goal of zero incidents.”
They began to research recognition programs that give incentives for behaviors or activities, as opposed to rewarding for statistics. They talked with a few promotional companies, but none of them possessed the right system to manage the program, given APAC-Missouri’s organizational structure.
In April of 2006, they met with Jon Kaufman, vice president and creative director for KL&P to discuss KL&P’s Safety Culture Management System. “It struck us as to how unique KL&P’s program is and how many different ways we could utilize it to assist our company and our safety program,” said Geger.
The program tracked results, provided 20 different performance reports and addressed the company’s need for a high-quality orientation component, given APAC-Missouri’s limited man-hour resources.
Combining E-Learning with Recognition
Schwedtmann and Geger were motivated by KL&P’s Learn-and-Earn component, a learning platform that is integrated into the Safety Culture Management System.
“We saw the [program] partly as a safety incentive program and also half of our New Employee Orientation program, so the Learn-and-Earn feature was a real selling point for us,” said Schwedtmann.
Once they found the e-learning recognition program, they had to sell it to the rest of APAC-Missouri’s management team and the company’s president, Arlen Halvorson. Schwedtmann and Geger had to convince management that KL&P’s Safety Culture Management System was the right tool to achieve operational safety goals.
“One of the most important factors I look for in any safety program is content and attractiveness to the targeted group of employees, because habits and behaviors can be very tough things to change,” says Halvorson.
It is paramount to Halvorson that any new safety or motivation program is easy for employees to comprehend, follow, access and navigate. Otherwise, the chance of its success and effectiveness is slim.
“KL&P was willing to work with Chris Schwedtmann to tailor the program to our work systems and key performance indicators,” says Halvorson.
The online Safety Culture Management System utilizes a points-accumulation program that allows for customization. For example, rather than earning points, employees of this transportation construction company earn “miles.”
Halvorson’s only concern regarding the program was the online nature of the training system and whether or not his workers would take the initiative to complete modules. Halvorson noted the incentive to take the training has to be large enough to attract the least motivated employee to take action without leaving a highly motivated employee bored or disappointed with the lack of opportunity to earn more “miles” from the e-learning system. Reassured that the Safety Culture Management System would be able to engage all employees, Halvorson gave his blessing.
Once Schwedtmann and Geger received approval, they spent the next 6 weeks developing the program’s identity and structuring it to include 22 behavior-based activities that could earn employees reward points. Once the ROADS program (Rewarding Outstanding Achievements that Drive Success) was ready for the company-wide kickoff event, Kaufman returned to APAC-Missouri to conduct a foreman workshop and meet with supervisors to educate them on the new online program prior to its launch.
ROADS Put Into Drive
On Sept 5, 2006, APAC-Missouri officially launched its new online program, starting with the motivational component. Halvorson encouraged the hundreds of employees who gathered at the ROADS kickoff event to participate in the program. Kaufman returned to the company’s headquarters to make a presentation about the online learning and motivational system.
“APAC put together a wonderful kickoff event, with top management in attendance showing complete support of the new initiative,” said Kaufman. “This, of course, was vital. Leadership is not the same thing as management. The employee base really needs to see company leadership’s support of the program.”
At the event, employees received ROADS logo hats along with tri-fold brochures explaining the program. A tear-off wallet card included the employees’ individual PIN numbers and passwords for their own online accounts. They became eligible for a free t-shirt when they logged on for the first time to the ROADS Web site from either their home computers or at regional offices. The program offers employees a wide variety of incentive gifts, from logo shirts to large ticket items such as iPods and flat screen TVs, for practicing a variety of safety-related activities. Participation in any of the committee-chosen safety activities, receipt of a coupon awarded on-the-spot for safe habits, engaging in the continuous improvement of the workplace and procedures and the completion of integrated educational modules allow an employee to earn a maximum of 500 points (miles) a month.
After the initial meeting, employee concerns regarding the new program were similar throughout APAC-Missouri’s 17 departments. “The initial reaction of my crew was that they thought it was going to be a lot like other things that the company had done in the past and it would not amount to much,” recalls Bridge Foreman Dean Storjohann.
A portion of APAC-Missouri employees immediately participated in the ROADS program, believing it is an interesting concept. “Then we had a good portion of employees who were skeptical and unsure as to whether it was going to work or not,” says Geger, “and another group that was completely indifferent to the program.”
Supervisors begin to utilize the ROADS coupons as an easy way to give employees recognition and reinforce positive operational and safety behavior. “As a supervisor, I like the coupon books because I can easily reward my people when they are doing something safe, and in quality control we are testing everything so it’s important that we stay out of the way of equipment while we do the work,” says Davis.
By the end of the first quarter, 22 percent of employees were actively participating in the program. “While ROADS didn’t start out with a bang with everyone thinking ‘that’s the greatest idea ever,’ more and more employees see the benefits and have jumped into the program,” says Geger.
Five months into the program, the level of participation began to level off at 32 percent and even dipped slightly, requiring Schwedtmann and Geger to reinforce the program. They believe the mid-year lull occurred for two reasons: “New technology – and the computer-based nature of the program – scared some folks, and secondly, we had initiated so many motivation programs in the past that weren’t well received that some people were still skeptical about this new program,” says Schwedtmann.
At that point, they rolled out the Learn-and-Earn component of the online safety program, having already retooled the existing APAC corporate Power Point training materials over the summer.
“We added pictures, tailored the information to APAC-Missouri and developed questions to go with each module, then sent everything to KL&P, ” says Schwedtmann. From the material, Kaufman developed flash presentations to create 15 customized, animated, narrative online training modules.
“APAC Corporate is happy because we are using their information,” says Schwedtmann. “This is another really key benefit of the program. It allows you to take all the things you are currently doing, like our near-miss program, our Step Up program and our standard annual training, and give incentives for participating in each by basically rolling them all into one effective educational program.”
Employees can access the Learn-and-Earn through the ROADS Web site from their homes or at one of three regional offices where APAC-Missouri maintains computer-equipped training centers. Each module ends with related topic questions that employees must answer 100 percent correctly to earn 75 miles.
“It allows people to have more opportunity to review the material on a regular basis than sitting in one presentation with 300 people and trying to absorb all the information at once,” notes Geger.
The program also addresses APAC-Missouri’s new employee orientation, which is a requirement for employment. While the company still holds quarterly meetings to reinforce the educational material, the Learn-and-Earn allows new hires instant access to important information.
The Learn-and-Earn has been well received by employees and many are quick to go online and complete the modules. “It is one thing to hear the information only at the safety meetings, but now they can bring it home and go through the material again,” says Davis.
The training feature encourages more employees – some of whom have never logged onto a PC – to utilize a computer. To address any issues with first-time users, supervisors offer assistance to those without access to a computer at home or who are apprehensive of the system.
The Web site also posts a monthly ROADS newsletter, which utilizes the recorded data on the company’s safety performance. Upper management and supervisors receive the newsletter by email and disseminate it to all employees, including those in the field. The newsletter reinforces the program, creates some friendly competition among the departments and announces any updates on modules, safety activities and new reward offerings.
Signs of Program Success
Eleven months into ROADS, 607 employees are participating in the program. APAC-Missouri’s reportable injury rates are down 63 percent, serious injuries are down 75 percent, fleet incidents are down 70 percent and the claims cost per man hour is reduced by 90 percent from the previous year.
“Our claims costs – what we pay to our insurance carriers for workers’ compensation, auto and general liability – went from 29 cents per man hour to three cents per man hour,” says Schwedtmann. This gives APAC-Missouri a competitive edge when bidding on contracts.
The ROADS program costs the company five cents per employee man-hour. “As of September … our claims cost have dropped 11 cents per man hour, so we have a two times return if you look at it from a claims cost basis,” says Schwedtmann. “There are so many things that play into these results, but they are due in large part to our being proactive instead of reactive, and this ROADS program is helping us achieve that.”
In addition to program participants, 35 employees have volunteered for four safety committees within the organization, an indirect consequence of the program.
“The atmosphere has changed dramatically, and people are taking it upon themselves to improve safety and are not relying on us,” says Schwedtmann.
These volunteer safety committees run their own meetings and report back to Schwedtmann. “There are a lot of hazards in what we do in asphalt and a huge need for safety,” says Brosseau who, with three other employees, comprises Springfield’s safety committee. “We are working toward our safety goals and I see things improving at APAC-Missouri.”
Springfield’s safety committee, the first instituted this past year, has served as a role model for the others. “They have accomplished some really impressive things, completely on their own, that have been very proactive, and have set the stage for positive reinforcement,” says Schwedtmann.
Just a little over 1 year after implementing this new approach to safety, APAC-Missouri is achieving the best safety performance records in company history. APAC-Missouri’s recordable injury rate has dropped three points since the ROADS program began in September 2006.
“After 1 year of the program, APAC-Missouri’s rate has dropped to 1.7, which is also less than a third of the 2006 construction industry standard,” says Schwedtmann.
For the first time since the inception of APAC-Missouri in 1998, the company has reached 100 percent of its safety goals in performance categories for its insurance claims. Schwedtmann is quick to point out that other factors also contribute to these results, but the ROADS program is the vehicle that allowed the company to structure its behavior-based safety training and education into one solid program to achieve substantially better results.
Debora Babin Katz is the founder and owner of d.communications, based in Massachusetts. She has extensive experience providing business development, marketing and communication services to start ups, emerging middle market, national and international companies. Katz holds a Bachelor of Science from Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts and serves on two national not-for-profit communication and editorial advisory committees. She is a published writer who contributes regularly to trade magazines and Web publications. Jon Kaufman is vice president and creative director of Kaufman, Levine & Partners Inc. Kaufman heads KL&P Motivation, and has been designing and administrating incentive and training programs for safety and productivity improvement for over 25 years. He is an associate member of ASSE and frequent speaker and exhibitor at safety shows. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 800-359-7995, ext. 228.