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Employers cut losses by including workers in safety strategies

Lego, Caterpillar report successes after change in approach

Employers cut losses by including workers in safety strategies

ATLANTA — Employers are engaging their employees in health and safety efforts and working to overcome a “culture of fear” that prevents workers from helping to correct hazards and behaviors that could lead to workplace incidents, experts said.

Maria Brunel, senior vice president of workforce strategies for Marsh Risk Consulting in Los Angeles, said she is “seeing more of a push toward involving employees in the solution.”

For example, employers are recruiting employees to fix specific hazards such as a lack of machine guarding or a failure to properly shut off machinery and prevent restarts before completing maintenance — two of the top 10 most frequently cited standards by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“As adults, we do better in a collaborative environment where we feel we have some control over our destiny rather than the old thought process of 'I'll tell you what to do and you get it done,' ” she said.

Engaging employees in health and safety efforts is critical because they are best positioned to identify risks and suggest potential solutions, stakeholders say.

The Lego Group's safety and risk management philosophy evolved as the company changed the focus of its U.S. operations from manufacturing and distribution to retailing its toy products at more than 90 locations, with the two groups working together to engage and empower employees, Janice Favreau, assistant risk manager for Lego Systems Inc. in Enfield, Connecticut, told attendees of the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual conference in Atlanta last month. The company engages employees in many ways, including creation of a proactive safety committee that raises awareness of issues such as ergonomics hazards and an internal blog where employees report safety risks, with improvements made in response to their reports and suggestions.

“We like each store to be seen as a hub of safety,” she said. “Safety, while there is an overall policy, is decentralized to the extent that each store is empowered with its own set of challenges and opportunities. But we also want to encourage dialogue from the store to corporate because we realize that knowledge comes from the folks that are out there on the floor. It's their information that we take to form policies.”

Lego's efforts to engage its employees have paid off since the current effort launched in 2012, officials said. Lost-time incidents had consistently averaged 10 per year through 2014, but the number of these incidents was cut in half in 2015, and the company has not experienced a lost-time incident so far in 2016, said Daniel Hayden, Lego's senior health and safety consultant in Enfield.

Total reported incidents rose from 47 in 2012 to 185 in 2015 and 109 to date in 2016, he said. “Once we started to convince people that (they're) not going to get in trouble for reporting an incident, injury or even a near miss — wow, did that really start to spike,” he said.

In the past five years, Lego's average paid general liability claim decreased from $25,000 to $300, while its average paid workers comp claim dropped from $2,000 to $1,400.

“When it comes time to market the account … it's all about the story,” said Justin Porter, a Philadelphia-based consultant with Aon Risk Solutions. “When the safety department works as closely with risk management as they do at Lego, it just makes that story that much stronger.”

Employee engagement also requires overcoming “a culture of fear” that sometimes prevents employees from reporting or correcting unsafe behaviors and a willingness on the employer's part to listen to employees' concerns, experts say.

“We don't always do things correctly when we are on autopilot, and we all have blind spots,” said Michael Williamsen, senior safety consultant with Caterpillar Inc. in St. Louis.

Caterpillar's blind spot came to light during an intensive examination of its Mississippi operations, which revealed that some employees were not reporting their injuries — a fear driven by prior leadership, which was focused more on hitting certain metrics than preventing injuries, said Anthony Whirley, group manager for Caterpillar in Booneville, Mississippi.

Caterpillar embarked on a cultural transformation, which included conducting perception surveys measuring areas such as employee attitudes toward safety, discipline and safety climate and forming a continuous improvement team to focus on the results.

The team quickly honed in on fixing a perceived problem related to discipline — a question asking employees whether they thought penalties should be assessed for safety and health violations garnered some of the lowest scores — and recommended an action plan to address peer and supervisor intimidation, Caterpillar officials said.

Mr. Whirley said he has seen signs this effort is having an effect, recounting two situations in which hourly employees corrected managers on unsafe behaviors.

“That's doing the right things for the right reasons,” he said. “That's the type of culture that's going to prevent and get us to zero injuries.”

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