5 tips for creating a strong safety culture in processing plants

Dec. 22, 2017

Strong safety standards and compliance are linked to greater productivity and employee satisfaction.

Workplace safety is the keystone of success for any company, but especially one with an inherently dangerous workplace environment like a processing plant. Processing plants, whatever the product, are rife with hazards. Before streamlining production, analyzing finances, pursuing Research & Development, or embracing new technology, the first priority must be safety.

Strong safety standards and compliance are linked to greater productivity and employee satisfaction. A cared-for workforce is a better workforce. Take the example of aluminum giant Alcoa: in the late 1980s, then new CEO Paul O’Neill turned the failing company around by focusing on one thing: employee safety.

Part of the reason O’Neill’s strong safety focus had such a large impact on company profitability is that safety failures are costly, more so than what is immediately apparent. Consider the dollar cost of hospital visits, rehab, and workmen’s compensation. There are also less straightforward costs like lost days of work, interrupted productivity, lowered workforce morale, hiring and training replacement workers, and strain on remaining workers to pick up slack left by the injured party.

Every single safety mishap negatively impacts your bottom line. The question is: How do you create a strong plant safety culture?

1. Start at the beginning

Your foundation is built on safety, so it should be the first topic you address with every new hire. Emphasize that in your processing plant, employee well-being is your number one focus. Present your health and safety materials, and discuss the ways safety is promoted in the workplace.

Make clear who newcomers should talk to about any safety concerns or questions and encourage them to provide feedback about ways to improve safety. Also be clear about your no-tolerance policy when it comes to shortcutting safety mandates or ignoring them altogether; let them know what the consequences for such actions are.

2. Get employees involved: Reward safety right-doing

You shouldn’t be the only safety messenger in your plant. Enlist your workers to be your eyes and ears on the ground. Encourage their input. They are the ones who most need to comply with safety standards, so the more they are involved, the better they will know the rules and the better able they’ll be to help others get on board. Because they’re on the floor all the time, they’re also the ones who will experience and can remedy potential hazards you may have missed.

Consider having suggestion boxes in the plant, and be certain to follow up with the suggestions publicly. This encourages others to participate. People who know their ideas will be listened to are more apt to talk.

Allow question-and-answer time at meetings, and publicly praise workers for safety right-doing. Offer a reward or gift certificate for excellent health and safety behavior. Celebrate no-injury months or even weeks; this supports teamwork. Safety is a group effort.

Get creative about how to get people involved. Every plant is different, as is every crew; find the encouragement that works in your unique situation.

3. Health pairs with safety

Health is a critical aspect of safety. Well rested, healthy, alert, clear-headed workers are less likely to get injured than their sleepy, ailing, distracted, foggy-brained counterparts. Consider stocking vending machines and cafeterias with healthy choices. Encourage sick employees to stay home from work. Provide quick breaks at least once an hour for employees to stretch and perhaps provide a respite from a repetitive or strenuous task.

Consider your audience and find how to communicate about health in a way that will inspire them. And, like all health and safety matters in your plant, leadership should lead by example.

4. Address weaknesses, enforce consequences

It’s important to emphasize where safety is going right. But there will be imperfections in the system. Find those. Scour your safety materials and be honest about where they fall short. Look diligently at your safety reports. If they’re not 100-percent effective, why not?

Go beyond regulations. What’s unique to your processing plant? Are you listening to your employees? Even if their requests are expensive — do they need to replace a lot of safety equipment, and that’s not in the budget? Now may be the time to lobby for an increased budget — weigh that against the cost of not doing it.

If an employee isn’t holding up standards, there must be consequences. Most accidents, and resulting injuries, are preventable. Make sure everyone on your crew is participating in that prevention.

It’s worth saying again: Safety is a group effort. If one person doesn’t clean up a passageway, it’ll be the next person who trips or slips. Even if your weak link causes his or her own injury, other workers have to deal with it, and the company has to pay for it.

4. Communicate safety messages effectively

Craft your safety messages such that they are memorable and clearly understood. Then use various formats to get the messages out. People learn and retain information in different ways.

Posters in high-traffic locations are helpful; make them eye-catching and occasionally change them. Safety emails or texts are another written option, but don’t overdo it or people may just ignore and delete them. Videos are useful messaging tools, as are regular meetings, weekly, even daily.

For all your messaging, while you want workers to understand how serious these matters are, a little humor can help the information stick and, more importantly, will get people paying attention. Safety isn’t a compelling subject; it’s up to you to spice it up.

5. Share your enthusiasm

You already understand how important worker safety is. Applying these five strategies will help you create a safety culture, but a healthy dose of your enthusiasm will make it stick and help others understand what you already know. Share your passion for others’ safety, and they will respond. Everyone likes to feel cared for.

TJ Scimone is the founder and CEO of Slice, Inc. Since 2008, he has worked with world-renowned engineers to rethink every aspect of safety while creating a unique line of cutting tools. The results are Slice’s proprietary finger-friendly® blade edge — a game-changing ceramic technology — and award-winning ergonomic handles.

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