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Safety First

How can communication contribute to establishing a safety culture.

Previdis asked Dirk Vandriessche to share his experience.

· Communications,Safety,Industry,Campaigns

You often organize safety campaigns in large industrial and chemical companies. In most cases, safety rules are already well established. So what is the purpose of these campaigns?

In recent decades, safety within companies has greatly improved thanks to safer machinery, better protection equipment and more attention given to safety rules and regulations. The number of accidents at work has dropped considerably. However, such accidents still occur. It is proving difficult to prevent the last 5%. The behavior of employees plays an important role in this connection. And that is connected with the safety culture. Basic measures such as drawing up and displaying safety regulations and making sure they are complied with are properly heeded in many companies. But you do see differences between them. While in one company employees simply follow the rules, in others people spontaneously give each other tips to work more safely, or they suggest improvements to their boss. In such companies there is a proactive safety culture. In our communication campaigns, we try to encourage this safety attitude.

What does a safety culture consist of?

Many companies put safety first. But action is more important than words. Safety should form part of the organisation's strategy and should be a day-to-day priority on the work floor. It should be incorporated in the objectives and evaluations of employees on a par with quality and productivity. Managers should give the example and, for instance, not enter the production hall without a helmet. A sound principle is: if it can't be done safely, we won't do it. For each task, the question should automatically be: how can I do this safely? If you fail to do this, you cannot claim to put safety first. In some companies, this principle is properly applied by having the worker formally go through a safety check list at the start of each task. This helps to influence behavior.

How can communication contribute to establishing a safety culture?

First of all, you should repeat the message continually in all sorts of ways: displaying posters, publishing articles in the staff paper, holding workshops, possibly even using a mascot, etc. What is important is that the subject is talked about. It is a good idea to regularly organize meetings about a particular safety issue, discussing and evaluating safety issues and improvements among colleagues. I believe that safety should go further than safety at work. Safety is a way of life. It should form part of the way you live. With this in mind, we have worked out a number of significant measures for a particular company. In coordination with the company, the police checked for speeding on the way to the company's premises. People who drove too fast were taken to the police van on the company car park. Not to pay a fine but to watch a short film about the risks of speeding. Those who had stuck to the speed limit received a present from the director bearing the logo of the safety campaign. On another occasion, when it had snowed, we checked whether the cars on the car park were fitted with winter tires. Those who did not have winter tires received an awareness raising brochure including a voucher offering a discount at the local tire dealer. It was in particular the first initiative that provoked strong reactions pro and contra. There was a lot of discussion about it, and that had been the original idea. The aim was to make safety into a subject for discussion among colleagues.

Often workers have to not only comply with the safety regulations but also meet targets for productivity, quality, etc. How do you make sure that workers do not neglect safety to meet those targets?

It is a fallacy that safety regulations lead to lower productivity. When an accident occurs, it has a major impact on productivity, on the company image, etc. Safety, quality and productivity are indelibly linked and affect each other. You immediately recognise a company where people work safely. Things are always clean and neat. And you can be sure that its products are of high quality and its productivity is sound. Actually, it is wrong to exclusively focus on serious accidents. For each accident there is a large number of near accidents and it is on these near accidents that you should focus, looking for causes and making adjustments accordingly. That is how you prevent accidents. Moreover, you can also formulate clear targets to ensure safety. Rewarding initiatives or organising a competition for the best proposals for improvement is a good idea. A positive approach works better to change behaviour or bring about a change in attitude.

And what about companies themselves? Are they making any effort to ensure safety outside the internal workings of the company, e.g. when concluding contracts with suppliers?

There are certainly companies that include safety as a criterion when selecting suppliers. Companies pursue a strict policy in particular vis-à-vis maintenance teams or other subcontractors whose workers enter the company's premises. Anyone who does not sign and comply with the safety charter or safety regulations is refused entry.
There are always risks in working with an external partner or a new subcontractor. External personnel is less familiar with the surroundings, the rules in force and the risks specific to the company. A lot of companies give attention to this and make sure subcontractors are issued with safety instructions (information sheet, short video, tour of the premises, etc.).
We went a step further when doing maintenance work on a cracker at a petrochemical plant. For several works, 2 000 workers from various subcontractors came to do work on the company's site. In addition to issuing the subcontractors with detailed safety instructions, we presented a short film (in a ten-minute loop) in the cafeteria every day during the lunch break to all those working on the site, with reportages and interviews about the progress of the maintenance work. The issue of safety came up every time directly or indirectly. In this way, we made sure that the subject of safety was constantly in the spotlight, keeping the subject fresh in people's minds. In the end, there were only three minor incidents. Quite unique. And certainly largely thanks to this communication approach.

Indeed quite unique, as most accidents actually occur during maintenance and repair work.

It is certainly true that the risk of incidents occurring is greater in unfamiliar and new situations. However, there is a risk inherent in routine work too. After some time, the worker often feels too complacent. Because he is doing a routine job, he is less careful and things can go badly wrong as a result. What this means is that no company should assume that safety is a given.
Repeating the message continually is a must. Only in this way will people bear safety in mind at all times and, hopefully, it will become second nature.

This interview was published by Previdis. The text is available in Dutch and French on their website.