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When a Safety Program Isn’t Enough: Why Culture is Everything

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It was a typical morning. The guys came in, grabbed their gear, and headed out to the jobsite. There were jokes as they put on their vests and hard hats. Same as everyday. But what happened this day, wasn’t funny.

Mike Rousselle, a sub foreman, was working on a high voltage line. He climbed up a pole and in a matter of seconds, he was hit with fourteen thousand volts. After a long electrical arc, encompassed in flames, he fell unconscious. The guys with him on site, with no choice but to watch the incident unfold, eventually had the chance to rescue him from that pole. The ordeal cost Mike months in the hospital, his arm, and could have cost him his life.

Mike is a survivor, but the company he worked for went through a difficult time both personally and professionally. Arctic Arrowline Group co-owner Mike Honeyman had spent months developing his Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) program. He was exceptionally proud of his work, but unfortunately, the book was where it started and ended. After the accident, Arctic Arrowline Group went through a rigorous review process that revealed the truth behind a “good” safety program.

Keeping employees safe on the job and building a culture of safety pays off in the health, wellness, happiness, retention, and attainment of workers. 

As stated by Mike Honeyman, “Everything about a company is exposed and vulnerable. It doesn’t matter how much good stuff that was done. It’s the things that a company didn’t do well. [In situations of employee accidents] they come to the forefront and they come quick.”

The program, as was unfolded in the OSHA investigation, was done properly. Everything that needed to be in the book was in place. But the company learned an important lesson––it doesn’t matter what is written down. “If the program regulations don’t translate into something real with the people you are responsible for, it means nothing.”

Sadly, scenarios like the above are not isolated events, or even “once in a career” accidents. And they are largely preventable with ongoing training, quality control, risk management, and most importantly––leadership from the top-down.

Safety is in the hands of everyone, but it takes more than hands.

It takes investment. An investment of time into the training of management and employees. Investment of funds directed into safety programs. And an investment of personal energy into keeping worksites as safe as possible because safety will always be in the hands of individuals.

It also takes a committed management team, employees who understand the importance of fostering a safety culture, constant training, and a comprehensive safety plan to create and support accident-free jobsites. But that’s not all. It also takes owners who are willing to allocate a percentage of project budgets to support and ensure safety measures.

The return is worth more than the investment.

Researchers studied real construction projects valued between $70 million and $480 million, and calculated the return on the money invested in safety:

A $100 million project with 3% of project value invested in safety, saw a 46% return on investment

A $480 million project with 2.25% invested in safety, realized a 424% return on investment.

While companies saw their dollar investments capitalized, it’s the human capital that’s worth more than the numbers above can articulate. More than EMR scores, or the fines companies avoid, personal reputation matters. Keeping employees safe on the job and building a culture of safety pays off in the health, wellness, happiness, retention, and attainment of workers. In a labor shortage, the investment in safety will continue to see dividends if the focus remains on people, and obtaining a zero-incident jobsite.

Stand-up for standing-down

Every year in May, OSHA holds the National Safety Stand-Down where workers take a break from their job to participate in toolbox talks on accident prevention, performing safety equipment inspections, developing rescue plans, discussing job-specific hazards, and creating awareness of the importance of workplace safety.

Hosting a safety stand-down is a good way to start a company-wide safety and health program. In fact, it’s an integral first step.

Here are 4 tips on hosting a successful safety stand-down:

Cover the basics. The logical place to start in reducing the chances of workplace accidents is by creating awareness. Go over the rules and guidelines for preventing falls. No matter how many times companies have gone over it already, this time it may just stick.

Review current safety procedures. Take a good hard look at the procedures in place. What has been working? Is there anything that could be improved? Ask for feedback from the group as well.

Foster involvement. A successful safety culture is not one-sided; everyone needs to be involved. Keep the audience fully engaged by creating activities and asking questions. OSHA suggests that “hands-on exercises (a worksite walkaround, equipment checks, etc.) can increase retention.” Some more ideas to foster involvement include:

Ask attendees questions about potential hazards on the current work site

Ask attendees to share experiences they’ve had, or have witnessed that illustrate how easily and quickly falls occur

Bring up a recent news story related to a construction accident and use it to open the subject.

Consider using the OSHA Prevention Videos to augment training

4.Safety is not a destination, but a manner of working. Safety stand-downs are meant to highlight and remind everyone in the company about the importance of safety in the workplace. But it shouldn’t end when the week is over. Continue to build awareness throughout the year. Besides periodic safety meetings that highlight particular fall dangers related to each jobsite, regular training is vital. OSHA recommends keeping training sessions short and easy to follow and encouraging participation with questions and discussions.

There’s still work to be done.

Two of the top five OSHA violations weigh heavily on the construction industry and the increasing fines for those violations are reminders that there is still work to accomplish.

With knowledge, training, and continual awareness, construction workers can look forward to having a safe place to work, margins can be protected, and owners can have the profitable buildings that they want. Everyone wins, and everyone gets to go home safely at night.

(Arctic Arrowline Group co-owner Mike Honeyman’s story adapted from WorkSafeBC, Safety Is Personal: An Employer's Story,


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