Managing Your Safety Program During Economic Crises

Surveying the dismal outlook for the economy in the upcoming months (years?), many of us ol' timers know safety is often one of the first areas managers cast a "cutback" eye upon when the economy turns sour. Many industries already are seeing this, with open safety positions being left dormant or abolished. Budgets are being slashed; and the use of extra skilled and unskilled help is being reduced or eliminated.

How do we as the safety leadership control our program amid downsizing?

Begin by doing what safety does best: Make a realistic and comprehensive plan. Look carefully at each line item and program initiative in detail. We all know cutbacks are coming and that our programs will be asked to do their part. Other essential steps to take in this time of economic crisis:

Stop whining. Besides being annoying, it leaves upper management with a bad perspective of your leadership attitude and ability to get the job done. It is true that in some companies safety is one of the first cut areas, and it takes years to rebuild the program after such setbacks. Now is not the time for negatives; focus on what you are accomplishing and what program and staff sacrifices you can offer. Again, be realistic. All departments are making cuts, and if you do not, someone higher up the corporate food chain will.

Offer constructive plans for how you will continue your initiatives with a reduced budget and which items can be delayed short term. Use terms such as "short-term delay," "scaled back," etc., as opposed to "abolished," "terminated," etc. After all, if the program was originally needed, you will eventually reactivate it. Otherwise, it will be gone forever as totally unneeded and a waste of funds.

Have two lists. One is for distribution of realistic cutbacks in your program and where you can save funds. Don't cut too deeply; you may be asked to increase your cuts later if the economic situation worsens. Have two or three stages, such as 5% budget reduction, 10%, etc. Offer real reductions, too, such as leaving a vacant position open or filling (short term) with a college intern. Otherwise blocks or even whole programs may fall under the knife. The second list is your real list of all programs and safety initiatives and what/how you can save every penny possible. Include a staff list and who is close to retirement, etc. Realistically evaluate the retention value of each member. For clerical staff, consider sharing the position with another department to maintain the full-time position, as opposed to losing it. This is the time for tough decisions for program survival.

Realistically list and evaluate each safety initiative, how well it is meeting its goals, and its overall value to the safety program. Can you save paper from handouts by posting more online for employees with computer access? Use bulletin board postings instead of paycheck fliers? Scale back use of consultants or outside trainers (not eliminate, just cut back) to save? Rent IH equipment or hang onto current equipment instead of upgrading?

And, have a personal plan. Now is the time to make sure your resume and reference letters are up to date and quickly available. Senior safety mangers often are sacrificed to save payroll dollars as less-qualified, mid-range safety people are kept. Make sure you know and can verbalize and have in print your value to the company, including teamwork and program success. (You can work well in a team, right?) Consider your reputation inside and outside your organization. Are you a troublemaker? A whiner? And most importantly, are you successful at safety and well-thought-of by employees for getting the job done?

This downturn in the economy will pass. Having made plans, our safety efforts will be stronger. As Safety, we live by planning the "what if" of each situation. Because this is one of our best strengths, we will pull through this, perhaps not unscathed but wiser and better for the experience. Whether this is a short-term or several-years cycle, Safety will weather the storm. Focus on your accomplishments and keep moving forward.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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