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Has Your Leadership Drawn the Line in the Sand on Safety?


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Over the span of his 40-year career in safety, Rich Baldwin, director of Health, Safety and Environment for Denver-based PCL Construction Enterprises (the sixth largest construction company in North America) notes that he’s worked for three corporations where employees witnessed a specific moment when the leadership announced their commitment to safety. There was a speech or announcement or some gesture from the company CEO that, going forward, safety would be the number one focus. And people noticed.

“In one company, the founder stood up in front of all the senior people and said, ‘This is the end. I will no longer tolerate a supervisor or manager who doesn’t encourage our workers to be safe and take safety seriously.’ And he showed that by taking action against those folks who didn’t follow his guidance,” Baldwin says.  

"It’s vital in all companies to demonstrate a commitment to safety. If they don’t have that safety leadership at the top that people recognize and is visible, then often very little happens down below.” 

At PCL, nearly 20 years ago, there came a moment where leadership “drew a line in the sand and said either you get onboard or you get off the train and go somewhere else,” Baldwin says. That moment set the tone for all safety professionals, policies, and programs going forward.

Baldwin emphasizes that there was no reckless corner-cutting happening at these companies before this “line in the sand.” But there’s a distinct difference between companies that have, for example, a safety committee that checks a box on an OSHA list, and a CEO that announces safety as the number one priority and demonstrates it with a solid investment in ongoing safety training. And that difference is what creates a safety culture that can achieve a zero-incident goal.

The Motivation for Safety-Minded Leaders

There’s a reason more construction executives are asserting this commitment to safety. Back in the 1980s, Alcoa CEO and safety trailblazer Paul O’Neill demonstrated not only the impact that executive buy-in can have on safety improvements—but that safety pays. O’Neill determined early on that safety should serve as an indicator of a company’s competence, but at the time he announced his goal of a zero-injury workplace to his investors, it was a novel concept.

Alcoa ultimately reduced its lost workdays to injury from 1.86 per 100 workers to 0.2. And in the first year following O’Neill’s announcement, the company saw record-high profits. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa’s annual net income had grown to five times higher than when he joined the company.

There is also, of course, the fact that safer companies are less at risk for steep fines from OSHA for workplace violations, but a leadership commitment to safety does more. It demonstrates the value of the worker. This commitment can go a long way toward retaining talented workers, a necessity at a time when skilled labor remains hard to find.

What Does Safety Leadership Look Like?

According to Baldwin, it’s about visibility.

“Probably the most important thing … is when a senior person walks through a project and makes eye contact and, when it’s feasible, shakes hands, asks workers how things are going, and asks how can we do better,” Baldwin says. “The worst thing that can happen is for senior people to walk through the project and not engage the workers. Workers sense they’re not interested and, as a result, they don’t tend to follow the rules as regularly.”

PCL has gone a step further than many companies in making leadership’s safety commitment visible to workers. Baldwin was one of the executives who accompanied the company president on a recent U.S. tour of sorts. The team did 67 3-hour training sessions at sites around the country, training superintendents, project managers, and engineers on behavioral safety and what it takes to be a safety leader. The success of the program is leading the team to launch another training program aimed at lower level supervisors.

“That set the example certainly for the rest of the company by going that extra mile,” Baldwin says. “It takes that commitment and resolve to spend the time.”

In addition to this leadership-led training, the company has strengthened its investment in off-site training. Baldwin recalls that when he joined the company in 2008, the company sent about seven people to the American Society of Safety Engineer’s annual conference. This year, more than 40 people will attend. “It’s a big commitment on the part of the company to improve the professionalism of our people, and their knowledge, through these training sessions,” Baldwin says. “We’ve got a lot of support to do training, that’s for sure.”

Making Safety Priority Number One

Companies like PCL, that set their sights on zero-incident jobsites, find success because leadership makes safety the number one priority. When the commitment to safety comes from the top, and is a clear priority that management invests in, workers know that their wellbeing is important to the company. While corporate loyalty may be often considered a trait of generations past, this commitment is an excellent way to retain valuable workers and boost those workers’ productivity on-site.

But as Baldwin points out, “It’s vital in all companies to demonstrate a commitment to safety. If they don’t have that safety leadership at the top that people recognize and is visible, then often very little happens down below.”

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