CEO Material Safety Leadership

How can you triumph over difficult challenges, even when your company has dual dangers of intensively physical work and an aging workforce?

Best leaders don’t give in to excuses, rationalizations, nor blaming workers. Smart Executives can learn from Steve Rowley, CEO of Eagle Materials (, who leads Safety with passion and precision.

Steve has successfully constructed a strong Safety culture and excellent performance in what seems like an uphill battle, with 1,700 employees (many long-term, in 13 states) making building materials— gypsum wallboard, cement, recycled paperboard, and concrete. They operate heavy machinery in punishing heavy industrial environments, with significant manual materials handling involved.

The results? Best-in-industry Safety performance. Steve is pleased that “Safety has become infectious within the organization.” And everyone, from senior managers to supervisors, to hourly line employees, understands the importance of Safety in everyday actions at EM. How has Steve’s Eagle Materials (EM) accomplished this?

¦ Build upon a foundation of trust. He tells everyone in EM, “Before we get to the point of truly developing safer work habits, you have to have a culture of trust. Hourly employees must have complete confidence in management’s sincerity that every employee’s Safety is paramount and takes precedence above all actions.” Steve models straight talk, consistent actions, open communication between all parties about finding “a safe way to work”—and then executing.

No mixed messages are tolerated here. “We’re never in a rush if it endangers any employee at EM.” Implications for Safety Professionals? “I want to be able to look each Safety manager in the face and know that everyone knows how to perform his job as safely and effectively as possible,” Steve says.

¦ Make Safety personal, not just statistical. Eagle Materials managers and supervisors are expected to focus on awareness and actions, rather than just trailing indicators. After initially ensuring EM’s workplaces and equipment are as safe as possible, main emphasis now is on eliminating unsafe acts. How? Through a wide array of awareness and training campaigns and visual, physical, verbal, and incentive reminders done on a daily basis. He says, “We need to make sure all employees know the real risks and how to overcome them.”

¦ Develop and adhere to a strong system. Steve, an engineer by background, emphasizes rooting out poor performance actions and recognizing exceptional ones. He cites cross-training with other EM plants as an effective tool to improve both sites’ Safety.

¦ Expect top performance of everyone—and put a huge emphasis on Safety. When he took over as CEO four years ago, he asked himself, “We lead the nation in profitability, but not in Safety. Why can’t we be equally good regarding the Safety of our workforce?”

Steve believes “Safety is a total company responsibility” and starts with the top. I’ve seen Steve give Safety “assignments” to senior managers for report-back within specified timeframes—and they all know this is not busywork, but will be read, assessed, and acted upon.

And Steve talks about “building ‘best in business’ Safety programs” by integrating Safety into every EM action and process. At EM’s annual Safety Conference, in which he took an active and attentive lead, Steve reinforced: “Everyone in our plants and Company is responsible when anyone has an injury.” And that Safety “is not something you download to employees.”

I asked Steve what happens if a manager doesn’t strongly buy into Safety either by word or actions. His response: “Not accepting our Safety culture is not an option. This directly affects whether you will continue to be employed at EM.”

¦ Unearth and rebuild weaker areas. Steve makes sure EM recognizes sites that have achieved great successes (one of which has a notable employee involvement system) while also focusing on areas “where we haven’t achieved.” Front-line supervisors are required to submit upgraded job Safety analyses monthly (“I want to make sure there are no ‘tick the boxes’”), as well as leading daily discussions that squarely place Safety “front and center.”

Steve realizes that, like many other companies, EM hasn’t done an exceptional job of training front-line supervisors in Safety. So EM’s 2008 objectives include transferring to each supervisor specific Safety expertise and training skills “at least as strong or stronger” than EM’s Safety Professionals. “Our hourly workforce will routinely receive the best Safety direction and training possible.”

EM also plans to have best-performing sites spearhead systems that further boost performance (with outside help), then serve as an internal benchmark for other sites.

Through passion, commitment, high expectations, and consistent actions, you can rise to the top of Safety performance and culture—even in highly challenging environments.

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

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