It's not enough to assume a fresh workforce, even if eager, will magically divine the safest ways to do new jobs.

Starting Up Safety

How can you make a first step solid? Ergonomically, starting up a new site is the best time to institute new design interventions. Put the desired tools and workstation setups into place up front, rather than playing catch-up later. Similarly, this is true for setting desired behaviors.

Even in an uncertain economy, many organizations still begin new ventures. If not building new sites, numerous companies upgrade machinery or processes to hone their competitive edge—or just survive. These are ideal times to formulate, then build those worker actions you want practiced day to day for a strong Safety culture.

If your company is not currently expanding, think of applying the following principles to achieve next-level Safety with new projects, equipment changeover, or in new-hire orientations. All are windows of opportunity when workers are most receptive and motivated to learn ways to be effective employees. And they’ll have fewer negative work habits to undo.

It’s not enough to assume a fresh workforce, even if eager, will magically divine the safest ways to do new jobs. The right pre-training cultivates both expectations and behavior. And though new employees haven’t fallen into negative habits for future work, they may still carry over ineffective behaviors from their past lives.

Bell Helicopter Textron reaped significant results by starting new workers off right. In planning to open a plant in Amarillo, Texas, Don Legg, director of Environmental and Industrial Safety, reports their vice president of Manufacturing mandated the same safety training system that showed strong returns in their existing Fort Worth plant be given to all just-hired workers at their new site. This plant went more than a year without a lost-time injury while simultaneously making a cultural statement about Bell’s Safety focus.

Similarly, when planning to open new Distribution Centers, Avon’s Kenyon Brenish arranged for innovative training systems for building safe behaviors to be given to all new workers.

Seven Ways to Launch Safest Operations Start-ups are exciting—and stressful—times. Here are seven ways to smoothly get operations launched with safest actions.

Get “baby and bath water” input from existing sites, focusing on what you might include and what to avoid. Ask yourself, “How is the start-up similar to existing operations, tasks, and employee base?”, “How will it differ?”, “What risks and exposures can we expect if all doesn’t go perfectly?” Emphasize both principles of how to approach work safely, as well as applications to specific tools and equipment.

Get leadership buy-in early from managers and supervisors. Bargaining unit leadership, too, if this applies. Make it easy for them to send and reinforce the Safety message from the get-go (in advertising for new positions and during interviews, orientation, first work days, etc.).

Convey expectations that Safety is the purview of each worker. Yes, the company has planned to make the new work site as safe as possible. Equally, Safety is personal, each person taking care of him/her self. Anchor this message by showing new hires how to quickly and easily monitor force building up in their bodies, decisions, positions, good tool use—so they can make needed small adjustments before they become worn down or injured.

Emphasize off-work safety to reduce cumulative trauma from home activities and build an effective autopilot. This can reduce cumulative trauma from off-work. For example, because it’s unlikely workers will lift one way at home and another at work; help them learn how to move objects with minimal stress on their bodies, everywhere.

Adjust planning by checking in early. Will Rogers said, “Planning gets you into things; hard work gets you out of them.” Do workers encounter unforeseen exposures? Are they using desired actions, PPE, tools? What further support do they need? Early check allows recalibrating to head off potential problems. And this broadcasts high-level cultural messages.

Reinforce new actions many ways. Go beyond external auditing; turn each individual into his or her own strong Safety leader. Consider training a cadre of new workers as agents of positive peer reinforcement. Use appropriate reminders within the site, on intranet, in newsletters, labeled on PPE, and more.

Carefully watch messages transmitted during start-up’s first six months. People take direction from actions, inactions, and interactions. Not only what you do, but what you ignore—and the interplay between these; unearth mixed messages before they become culturally entrenched.

Seize the Opportunity that Knocks Only Once When beginning a new site, machine, or process, seize the opportunity that knocks only once. Envision desired behaviors, set consistent expectations, and reinforce continuously. While it’s definitely possible to turn around seemingly calcified low performance, start-ups are an ideal time to have first steps firmly move in the right direction

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

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