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Getting to zero: Practical strategies for meeting zero-incident goals through successful process indicators

Be advised: This process is NOT for the faint of heart!

by John Meola, CSP, ARM, Pillar Engineers, Inc.

John Meola We all want to do it, we all wish for it: zero incidents. A safety manager's dream, the marketing department's Holy Grail, the HR manager's nirvana, the board room will be overjoyed, the boss can finally sleep well at night. But wait – has anyone really thought about how we can actually translate this lofty goal into reality?

The truth is, it's really complicated. And, this process is not to be entered into lightly, because failure along the way can cause some unwanted "side effects" within your organization. Basically, "getting to zero" is a fairly advanced concept in the field of risk management. It requires a formidable commitment in time, people, money, responsibility, and at the head of this food chain, the all-important "L" Word: leadership, which must originate directly at the top of your organization.

In other words, if you are the safety director and you're reading this, you are unlikely to have the clout to institute this program in your organization. The CEO? The COO? Probably more likely. We are talking about a major commitment to roll out and sustain a "Zero Incident" campaign. There are equal parts of marketing, branding, accounting, safety, management, training, purchasing, HR, quality assurance/quality control, and a few others.

You will likely need to learn a bit of new vocabulary:

  • Organization safety culture.
  • Leadership commitment.
  • Sustainability and continuous improvement.
  • Careful definition of your "brand:" your logo, your message of how and why this zero incident program is going to be implemented in your workplace.
  • A well-crafted description of the program goals. It's not enough just to say "zero." Plan to develop detailed explanations of how you will implement, maintain, enforce, evaluate, and improve the program, because the first question people are going to ask is, "How will this affect me?"

Training in the shape of formal, detailed lesson plans—not just for safety training, but also for explaining the zero-incident goal to your management structure, as well as what is expected of them to achieve this.

Training must be classroom-based, because this program is too complex to fit into an e-mail or jobsite meeting in the trailer or, for that matter, as an add-on to the regular round of production meetings.

  • Clearly defined responsibilities and accountabilities – this can make some people nervous, so be judicious and mindful. Avoid overtaxing the already stressed line supervisors with a heavy, bean-counting burden.
  • Specify your metrics, spell out the leading and lagging indicators you need to be measured, who does the reporting, data crunching, analysis, etc.
  • Specify who reviews the numbers, how they need to react. This needs to be a team effort, it should not fall entirely on one person, or even on one department.
  • Spell out your incident reporting structure. One "zero incident program" corporation had an 8-page report form.
  • Include workers' comp and insurance claim management. There may also be a placeholder in it for your emergency response plan in this chapter—leave room for it.
  • Define a set of meaningful safety education and data; for example, if you're running a fleet of delivery vehicles or cable installers, you probably will not get much tractive response from the crews by preaching about Hazard Communication or The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or BBP. Plan to bring in experts in their field to demonstrate competency. Defensive driving is pretty important in the food chain, for example.
  • Study the accident statistics for your industry. (Use BLR/OSHA or insurance data.) Set up your curriculum to focus on the known landmines.
  • Your safety committee will need to be on steroids. They will clearly have a major role to play.
  • Yes, any person has the authority to stop a job because of a safety issue. The reality is, this should never happen. If you're smart enough to even aspire to implement a zero incident program, then you are going to be hugely invested in all of the avoidance measures-planning, AHA's, JHA's, preinspections, etc. – to prevent the hiccup from happening once your crews are on the job.
  • Communications hardware: Plan to distribute iPads, laptops, iPhones, state-of-the-art tools, appliances, etc., to make reporting easier.
  • Common sinkhole: This is not just about the employee. The best workplace programs will engage the family: the spouse, the partner, the parents. In other words, you will leverage the impact of this effort by widening the audience. This is even more relevant when incentives are involved. As in, "Honey, make sure you don't get hurt at work, I really want that toaster."

What you do not want to hear from your line supervisors? "I have to make a choice between doing this 'Zero' stuff or getting the job done." Bad situation. The "choice" has to be invisible at the field operations level. The "choice" has to be an integral part of the job, already built in, not an add-on. Not an imposition of more to do, but a required job component. It must be transparent, integrated, and understood, which is what the roll-out training portion will achieve.

You should be conversant in the following concepts and belief structures, only some of which deal directly with traditional "safety:" The Hawthorne Effect – It's not what you do, but rather that you did something.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs – Where safety and security reside in the hierarchy. For example, Amazon has developed its employee development program along these lines with phenomenal results.
Morris Massey – "What you are now, is what you were then." Human behavior recognition and modification; connecting to diverse populations; the demographics of your audience.
Behavioral safety; "affective behavior" – DuPont's new mantra. Human motivational/demotivational influences – Money for example, is not a motivator.
Incentivizing a population – This can be enormously constructive, but must be handled correctly.
Peer group dynamics – This is a very important concept, and it can make or hinder the process.
Empowerment, enabling, coaching & mentoring techniques. Adult learning concepts. Cognitive behavior; recognition and perceptive awareness.

In summary, achieving "Zero" is not going to happen just by looking for safety deficiencies. You need to plan to be looking way over the horizon. Your entire organization is going to be rowing this boat, not just a select few.

Supervision and managerial input: The "Swiss Cheese" model is used by large multinational companies to illustrate the role of supervision in the "Zero" process: Imagine a big block of Swiss cheese sitting between your employees and the hazards associated with any given job.

These hazards want to attack your employees, but the only way they can get to them is by going through the "holes" in the cheese. Your management structure's and supervisor's job is to figure out how to how to "plug the holes" to prevent this. See the complexity?

The "hole-plugging" for the most part needs to be done way far upstream of the job, not when it's actually in progress. This is why planning, preinspections, and JHAs are so critical to the process, and why the safety committee needs to share inputs. This is so you do not encounter hidden surprises that require extemporaneous modifications on-site. Some examples are: This ladder won't reach. Back the truck over here. This tool is not cutting it. Give me the hammer. There's no guard on the grinder, but I need to do this.

Here are some of the mechanics for a "Zero Incident" program:

Planning: This includes preinspections, education, training, real-life scenarios, etc. This is way beyond the generic OSHA regulatory requirements. You should be doing what-if modeling, table-top exercises, dry runs, etc.

Form an implementation team, and name it something compatible. Not too aggressive, but make it assertive enough to establish credibility within your demographic.

  • The process to institute a "Zero Incident" culture can take many months or even longer. This is not to be rushed; you need to get the details right.
  • Plan to answer questions from the floor during the roll-out meeting.
  • Consider doing a perceptions survey to gauge the receptiveness among workers for this program.
  • Everyone must have a role in the process. HR will have a big role. The safety department, obviously, will play a big part in implementation, but not exclusively.
  • The "Zero" program will need to be on every management meeting agenda.

Additional operative factors:

  • Organization development and management training—If you are not doing any of these things now, then you have a lot more work ahead.
  • Performance evaluations for all employees, but particularly for supervisors—These need to be done on a fairly frequent basis. Evaluations should be brief, not life-history accountings. Train your managers who will do the evaluations—if they hear too much whining or push-back during a routine performance evaluation, that's an indicator something is not working. Refer the case to the next level for microsurgery.
  • Determine your level of organization maturity. For example, it is a lot easier to apply "Zero Incident" elements in a new organization than it is to layer them into an existing structure.
  • Ask yourself, what is the present level of risk tolerance in your organization? What do you need to make it bend toward zero? Does everyone understand how much more costly accidents are than the cost of avoidance?
  • Who will be the "champions" to lead the Zero effort in the workplace? Refer to peer group dynamics for a better understanding of this important role. You will need team leaders, champions, water-carriers, mechanics, housekeepers, etc., to roll out the program and keep it moving.
  • Plan for a system of measurement and tracking. The quality assurance/quality control department may offer some help—or a systems analyst, for that matter.
  • Inspect/measure everything, including facilities, tools, and equipment. Plan for periodic maintenance on critical machines and equipment. Match the maintenance schedule with lockout/tagout, confined space entry, and fall protection.
  • Take a lesson from the quality assurance department. Calibrate and label everything, including include heights, weights, clearances, and date of service. You are basically building a mentality of confidence on the way to "Zero"—plugging the holes in the cheese, so to speak.
  • Plan on holding a LOT of meetings. And not just safety meetings; informational meetings, training sessions, update briefings, open door meetings (where managers from different departments sit down with the line employees and poke around ideas or issues).
  • This is all part of your new communications structure, because getting to "Zero" will necessarily involve a lot of communications in many different organizational directions. Tip: Always serve a simple refreshment at your meetings.
  • You should have a suggestion program on steroids. The number and usefulness of suggestions is an indicator of how hard your people are thinking about making improvements. And you sure will need them thinking if you plan to hit "Zero." And not just safety improvements—across the board, anything is fair game.
  • Plan to provide meaningful feedback on performance. This can be as simple as a pie chart tacked on the wall, or can range up to full-screen LCD display—in any case, you should be advertising and heralding success, and drilling into the details when performance lags. Find out why it dipped, and go after it.
  • Close calls/near miss reporting: You gotta have it. To make the reporting as painless as possible, try to digitize it from the start, and make it anonymous. But here's the hard part with close-call reports: You need to figure out how to:
    • Categorize and analyze the reports.
    • Investigate every one to the extent of potential severity.
    • Take action when the investigation tells you it was not just "luck," and that the incident could have actually been avoided.
    • Report back to the organization on your findings—such as how many reports were received this month and from which "category" (e.g., driving, site work, facilities). Describe your corrective measures for avoiding repeats.
  • Plan on how to deal with "occurrences" of any stripe. Consider a nondisciplinary
  • "Safe Work Practices Counseling" process to address behavioral observations of noncompliance or "needs to improve." Plan how to handle instances of recidivism. There needs to be accountability at every step.
  • If your population is resistant to the "Zero Incidents" concept, is dismissive of the goal, or is openly skeptical or defiant, then you need to rethink the process. There is probably some disconnect that you're going to have to rearrange and overcome, whether it is the people or the process. If the prevailing attitudes are not supportive, then the chance of success is diminished.
  • Identify your organization's potential for risk-taking, underreporting of incidents, non-reporting of incidents, etc.
    • This has become a matter of concern for OSHA, since non-reporting and underreporting are among the downside risks of the "Zero" culture. Consider the effect on your line employees. Provide a guideline on how to handle reports of "incidents," including injury.
    • Self-diagnosis and treatment are OK if there are some controls. The reality of it is that most injuries are going to be obvious for their degree of urgency. Keep a well-stocked first aid kit and ice packs handy for the minor stuff. If something happens, you to deal with it.
    • This is doubly important if your program offers incentives or bonuses for achieving milestones. Plan to avoid pressuring employees who have an incident. They need to report it, you need to deal with it. It's not the end of the world.
  • Evaluate other goal-setting and measurement strategies that may provide a better fit for your organization, such as comparisons with your OSHA industry standards, your own recent history, or other known performance metrics. What does the insurance industry think about your business risks? For example, if you are in a high-risk rating class for workers' comp insurance, there is a reason. You should be hammering those reasons in your program.
  • Implementing "Zero" is not an insurmountable challenge. Some of the largest construction companies in the world are using "Zero," and they're not exactly building vacation homes. They apply "Zero" to the tens of thousands of highly skilled tradespeople, and they get it. So, it shows that it can be done.
  • But, in the end, "Zero" is not for every company. Some organizations are perfectly well-suited for traditional safety programs, and do a fantastic job with them. Use a reasoned appraisal when making the decision. Do your research, and take your time. Consult with others in your industry and in the business community for a reality check. This is a relatively expensive process, as we mentioned.
  • Your performance measurements should focus on leading indicators and the process, and less so on the outcome. How many close calls were reported last month? How many "fixes" did we make? What were the results of our facility inspections? And how many were there? How does the Suggestion Program look? What are the fleet inspection findings? The warehouse, loading dock, machine shop, paint and coatings line, etc.; all are focus inspection categories.
  • Drill down to the details on the inspections. For example, the inspection checklist for the machine shop will have more items on it than, say, the checklist for the loading dock or the office. Include every square inch of your facilities in a programmed inspection schedule. Include parking lots, breakrooms, warehouses, utility buildings, the main factory floor, maintenance shops, etc., because this sends the message "We are looking in all places for preventable hazards."
  • Assemble your inspection teams from diverse skill groups and have them cross-pollinate into different areas – a fresh set of eyes may find different perspectives.
  • For extra credit: The inspection teams should be identifiable to the average worker by wearing a high visibility vest or a different colored hard hat. Give each member of the team a tool kit that includes a tape measure, writing pad, pen set, flashlight, gloves, kneepads, etc. We actually gave one team a pair of binoculars and said, "This is how closely we want you to look for hazards."

Summary: Your "Zero" program must touch all employees, and it must reach them at whatever level they are located in the organization. Your program by be in their language and at their level of competency—skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled. It must be workable, achievable, and understandable for them. This is particularly important at the roll-out stage, at the update stage, and for any re-directive actions that need to be taken.

As we said at the outset, this program is not for the faint of heart. It takes a strong organizational safety culture to run a "Zero" program, but in addition to preventing accidents, the long-term rewards for the entire organization are equally impressive.

The author is John J. Meola, CSP, ARM. He is the safety director for Pillar Engineers in Richmond, VA. Meola provides consulting services to clients that are developing their safety programs using world-class standards. He is an adjunct instructor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, Risk and Insurance Center and holds a BA Degree in Education. He can be reached at jmeola@pillarens.com.

On November 17, 2015, John Meola conducted a live webinar where he discussed the above issues in detail: To investigate purchase of the on-demand audio of the webinar, click here.
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