Developing a Safety Attitude

May 6, 2008
Paul was a conscientious employee. He would do a little extra and try to save the company money.
He operated a power shear, cutting sheet aluminum into pieces that would be formed in later operations into parts of a recreation vehicle. One day, he reached behind the safety equipment and behind the shear to grab the sheet, in an effort to get one last piece out of the stock material. The price of a few square inches of 6061 alloy aluminum was not worth as much as the tip of the thumb that he lost.Walt worked in the same shop. He was a punch press operator. The safety harness that would pull his hand out of harm’s way in case of a trip was cumbersome and got in his way when he wanted to reach in and pull out a piece of aluminum that had jammed in the die. One day, that inevitable second trip came, and he lost part of a thumb and part of a finger. It could have been much worse.Safety culture
The names are made up—partly because after 30 years, I don’t remember them. I can still picture their faces, though. We were a small division of a larger manufacturing company that doesn’t exist in its same form any longer. I was fresh out of college and learning manufacturing engineering and production-inventory control. Great opportunity for learning. When you’re in a small operation, you have to wear many hats. We took safety seriously, sort of. We told people what to do, but there really wasn’t a culture of safety at the time. And that was not unusual for the 1970s. Actually, the attitude was still prevalent in the 1980s, too. As we brought more equipment into the shop, I started taking classes on safety and on how the various machines worked.Several of the experts that I interviewed for my article this month on safety competency (p. 34) mentioned the history of when manufacturing company executives viewed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a thorn in the side and a costly encumbrance. Eventually, most have discovered that it makes sense on so many levels to develop a safe workplace. This works in the office as well as the plant, by the way. Rick Widdowson, of Schneider Electric, talked about how his company encourages and teaches people about a safety lifestyle. Not just how to be safe in the factory, but also how to be safe in their homes and while traveling between the two.Regular readers of this column and my blog know that I support volunteer efforts in committees and organizations that promote the industry and the technology. Angela Summers’ words quoted in the article pleased me greatly when she stated how much joy she had working with the committee putting together ideas and guidelines for safe plant operations. That committee is doing a tremendous service to the industry and to all of the people it employs. There are ISA committees that you could volunteer for, or contact Summers. You could also work with a local community college or engineering program.Almost everyone I interviewed spoke of the importance of top management support. Most top managers are not callous; they don’t desire to sacrifice the bodies of their employees. The problem happens when they are distracted by other priorities and fail to include safety as one of them. Leaders at every level must assure that part of their message to everyone they meet is safety. It’s important to the lives of employees. It’s important to community image. Heck, it’s important to the bottom line, if that’s all you can think about.Another form of top management support would be to send people out to training and certification courses. I’ve watched the demise of management support for technician and engineer certification through the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA). That’s too bad, but support for safety certification may be even more crucial. Most of all, safety begins with you—and me.