Working within the system

Saftey culture

Working within the system spans 45 years of my workng background.  It defines how a wage earner spent a lifetime working the system to better the working environment.

The beginning

I started working full time at the age of seventeen.  Green as grass, a small town country boy who decided to leave home, his province and start work in Alberta.  Alberta was booming and was the place for young people to start a career.  With no skills, I was drawn to construction where a strong back was more important than education.

Education on the job

This was where the rubber met the road.  I started in 1967 when there was little time or desire for companies and supervision to properly mentor a new hire.  The construction boom was in full swing and running on high octane fuel.  Once you checked into your employer’s site office, you were armed with basic instructions, directed to your job and the rest fell on your shoulders to comply.

I was fortunate to have had a father who was very resourceful and was able to manage his work as well as juggle a large family.  He was good at giving directions but was mentally organized.  He never took chances with his family or work and this was the basics that I was taught.

The job sites I worked on were very different from what I expected or envisioned.  I had never seen the construction of a natural gas processing plant or a refinery that had over ten thousand workers on site at one time.  Hell, I had never seen ten thousand people in one place at one time ever before.

The construction boom was a worker’s delight and I went to work with my eyes wide open and in total awe.  That soon changed as I was engaged in the workforce.  I soon found out that the biggest gaps I had to fill in were for my own safety.

Looking back

I started out labouring and then progressed to installing insulation on piping and equipment.  Gas plants or large refineries had thousands of feet of piping requiring insulation.  I remember the original Syncrude refinery had over ten thousand miles of pipe from 60″ diameter down to 1/2″ instrument tubing to make everything work.  The equipment was as huge as the investment and piping carried product, steam and water throughout the plant and beyond to feed the process.  Much of the piping was hoisted into position by cranes and scaffold would be erected to allow manpower to complete the installation.

There were many areas where the piping had been tied in and the scaffold removed. The work could be accessed but a worker would need one arm for hanging on and the other to attempt an insulation installation.  If you were lucky enough to work on a crew with forward thinking supervision, the scaffold would be erected and waiting. Much of my early working career found me on crews with poor supervision and I would be the monkey hanging out in netherland trying to complete work.  I survived and it taught me a number of lessons I would never forget.

Later years

As I grew in experience, my responsibilities increased.  I was now “that supervisor” who had to decide if I was about to place a worker at risk or add to my job costs.  My struggle was magnified by my employer of the day, who had just started a new company.  Cash flow and profit meant moving forward and the company ownership wanted to succeed.  This placed me in a position where risk management took on a new meaning.  Until I was invited into estimating discussions, I was at the mercy of the estimator and the owner.

I remembered my start in construction and put my feet in the owner’s  shoes as well as the workers boots.  From there I envision the potential dangers of the instructions I was issuing and became very resourceful in managing safety.

Safety struggle

I soon discovered that a Safe Work Policy in a company brochure is not necessarily what is found on the job site.  The words are crafted to make government and readers believe the company has nothing but pure intentions towards their workforce and customers.  This is only as good as your first face to face with company ownership and the word profit enters the conversation.  Now what?

In my case I had a lot of experience with bad employers and reckless supervision.  I promised myself then and there that I was going to show this upstart company what real safety meant to the worker.  I did have a lot of conversations about safety in the course of my twenty year employment with this company.  My intent was always to work smart and improve job site safety.  The company’s position was often about profitability and longevity.  Many a time I asked my employer to give me the job site advantages of a true safety program and I would demonstrate profit in the end.

Having no skin in the game, it made my position weak and my requests created a risk for both of us.  I knew in my heart and mind it could be done.  It became a parallel  struggle over the years to reach a successful outcome; like climbing an extension ladder from the outside rails.   The company was on one side and me on the other, but headed to the top together.

I was always there to ensure money was available to cover the minimum in the estimates for safety and hopefully add a percent or two.  My selling point was now my past construction experience and track record.  I was consistently making profit for the company and there was less and less resistance to add extra safety dollars in an estimate where needed.

Government regulations

In time, industry was maturing and requiring change.  The voice of the worker was being heard by many.  Too many workers died from poor supervision and lack of safety training.  Some results were immediate and others like asbestos related disease, more passive.

Industry alone could not enforce safe work practises and went to government for assistance.  The governments of the day started to formulate the basic legislation to corral and streamline workplace safety to address the needs and concerns of the worker and industry.  Companies that could not meet the safety requirements and audits were now sidelined and those that embraced safety became more competitive at a cost.  This is where I really started to analyze my employer’s safety policy and where I could push the safety envelope.

I am sure this policy statement has never changed to this day but I don’t care.  Once my voice carried a little further up the food chain I did my part to use this policy against my employer and hold the company accountable.

My employer 

My employer was multi faceted.  They had multiple mini construction divisions within the corporate structure.  This was a simple strategy of not putting all your eggs in one basket.  Should one division be temporarily unprofitable, the ownership could live off the other divisions.  It was good for the employees as well.  Many would shift back and forth when work had to be shared thus keeping the majority employed.  There was a time when it became difficult to move manpower from my division to others.  The basic complaint was a poor safety culture and management short cuts in the sister departments.

Walk the talk

I got to lead one industrial division within the company and worked under a general superintendent.  But for the most part, left on my own to manage the field workforce and the projects in the thermal insulation division.  I went through a lot of work and hundreds of thousands of man hours over the twenty years of employment.

There were the other divisions under corporate umbrella with different supervision and managers; the siding and decking department, architectural finishes department and the fabrication shop.  This was basically the company I worked for those many years.

Winds of change

One of the key aspects of government and industry led legislation are the ever changing parameters required by contractors to meet criteria set out as achievable goals .  In the case of safety, a numerical system was derived that identified companies overall safety status.  If a company exceeded a specified threshold, they were educated or penalized in a number of ways.  One forced a review of accidents and incidents and written suggestions for improvements. Example two; hit a threshold and your WCB rates would increase cutting into corporate profits.  Hit another threshold and your company was deleted from the Bidders List and work became scarce until the company safety statistics improved to the previous threshold.  There were many thresholds that a company could get around but if you were not good enough to bid work, you were in trouble.  Fines and threat of real jail time did not come till later.

My employer found themselves in that unenviable position of not qualifying for the Bidders List a number of times. They could have lost some of their most profitable work because of a poor safety record.  But there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  My employer got a lot of advice about safety, orientations and work practises from an outside source.  The information came in the form of VCR tapes and were supplied by a third party.

It was a shared tool used by companies that needed help with improving their safety culture in house and the field.  I sat through all of them and was probably the only one who took the time to listen the message and apply it in everyday work and at home.  Then I put my workforce through the same videos before signing off but the owners probably felt it was below their station to listen and learn.

A short story

Many years ago my employer hired new immigrants to work in the shop.  These people came from a far distant land where civil war had displaced them.  They came to build a better life with no knowledge of modern power tools.  The shop was overbooked and needed to get product out to the field.  The new workers were orientated but it was painfully obvious they had no idea what was about to happen.  I spun around and took my concerns to my manager when I saw these people milling around in the shop.  It was not my area of expertise or under my supervision but I could not let it go.  I went directly to my manager who was also one of the owners.   As much as my impassioned speech would offer, it fell on deaf ears and resulted in a statement about the shop foreman’s responsibility.

I was on my way through the shop to my truck when I saw one of the new employees cutting a specialty product on a table saw.  He was on his second piece.  I suspected that the shop foreman showed him how to cut the first one.  I wasn’t two steps past the saw and there was a scream and lots of commotion.  The worker had cut off four fingers in the saw and was just standing in shock, blood everywhere.  I came so close to quitting that day and so angered.  I know my manager never forgot our conversation because I went back and told him what his short sightedness had cost his company.

There were a few more inexcusable tragedies including a worker’s death but they were never with the department I looked after.  I worked many, many years on the tools as well as supervising large projects.  All I can say is the people whom I worked with under my direct supervision never suffered a lost time incident in over twenty-five years.

The government legislation was now putting a lot of pressure on the ownership who had been giving lip service to their safety policy and practices.  There were a number of projects where my employer could not meet the Bidders List safety threshold and they always came back to my department safety stats to do a work around.

This continued for all the years I was employed by this company.  The core problem was the company ownership itself.  The company was well suited for the industry and the ownership and general superintendent had a very deep and lengthy roots to build from. This became a hindrance as times changed and these people took forever to take the quantum leap to safety management and equate it to profitability.  Sometime a worker equates this to corporate greed.  But like the ladder analogy, I went as far up the ladder as I felt that employer would allow me to grow or could take me and left – on top.

Hearts and minds

To the many supervisors still struggling to be heard or having difficulty engaging and balancing a safety culture with profitability, a word of advice.  It isn’t about beating on a dead stick to get your point across or overloading your workforce with layers of safety acronyms and jargon that will keep your workers safe and productive.

You have to set the example you want your workforce to follow.  There is no end to the improvements that you can install but too much of a good thing can diminish the results.  Today, labour has taken safety issues to a new level and this has both pros and cons.  Before retirement, I heard from so many supervisors espouse a safety theory – If you don’t move, you can’t get hurt. That is not supervision but capitulation!

Keep your focus on what you can actually control or influence, specific to the work at hand and divert those who want to discuss the what ifs or the possibility of.  So many safety issues can be engineered out of the equation but others still require common sense and purpose and others can be addressed when needed.

Boredom and retention

A percentage of workers believe the analogy – you don’t move , you can’t get hurt.  They hide behind safety as a reason for non performance of assigned duties.  In reality, those people are the most vulnerable to accidents.  Why you ask?

As a supervisor and or employer; you have to peel away all the excess safety jargon and identify your basic goals to the worker before they set foot on site.  You have to sell yourself and your belief in a safe workplace at every opportunity to be believed and understood.

The worker I describe above has not heard you and is making up the rules as he or she feels fit.  Everyone has sat through numerous safety orientations, tool box meetings and heard or learned nothing.  You have to be able to create a pathway where the worker buys in to your beliefs and has the opportunity to lead and improve on your vision.

I really despise the safety professionals who have sold major employers on the “longer the better” safety orientation analogy.  Who in their right mind could sit two working days or more listening and watching safety lectures and films.  This is where we lose the true thrust of a safety culture.  You can’t jam a culture down a worker’s throat in two days and not expect them to gag.  You have to demonstrate culture every day and supervisors are still the front line messengers.

But it takes a true believer and a life time, to demonstrate and exercise an all-encompassing safety culture and still maintain profitability.  It takes hearts and minds, leadership and engagement to make safety better for everyone.  But it takes a work force to complete the assigned work safely and each relies on the other half.

I feel I have achieved this partnership and believe I have left an everlasting safety culture behind. Everyone has the ability to reach this goal and surpass it.  Will you be that person?