Corporate Executives Sound Off On Safety

Five top executives from disparate industries discussed the business of safety this week during a special Executive Summit at Safety 2010, the American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual Professional Development Conference & Expo, held this year in Baltimore. Making sure employees leave work injury-and-illness-free every day and gauging how safety professionals can move up the corporate ladder were among the issues on the table.

“We start at the top. Safety is a key core value,” said Bryan O’Connor, chief of safety and mission assurance for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Bill Ermatinger, vice president of human resources and administration at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, located a short drive away from the Baltimore Convention Center where the summit took place, echoed the sentiment. “We have 40,000 employees, and we reach them through our leadership, which is very easy and doable. Safety is built into all performance contracts,” he said, noting Northrop has more than 100 years of designing, building, overhauling, and repairing ships for the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and world navies. “And you also need to look at what your customers need. Our customers are the taxpayers, and we need to make sure we produce quality products with little costs, and safety is key.”

“Safety to us is a competitive advantage,” said Kathleen Shanahan, CEO and chair of the board for WRScompass, a company with a technical workforce of more than 600 employees dedicated to assisting businesses with the challenges of ‘going green’. “Safety impacts every part of business, and businesses need to keep proactively challenging themselves when it comes to safety. See what your competitors are doing, for instance; keep learning and educating yourselves. Be proactive and preventive.”

“Families don’t care about the business model,” Ermatinger said. “They want their relatives to come home safe. That’s what safety is.”

O’Connor noted the same, recalling a particular national tragedy. “All mishaps are a big blow to us,” he said. “When Challenger happened, we paused and looked at what we could have prevented and prevent it from happening in the future. It greatly pains us when we lose a co-worker, family member, friend. We don’t want that to happen. “We may not have the budgets or the resources, but we have the brainpower to identify risks and provide solutions.”

Greg Hale, vice president of Worldwide Safety and Accessibility for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, discussed the challenges posed by worldwide work locations, saying, “When we went to China, we were told we’d have a great number of fatalities. Well, we had none. We instilled our safety culture and value of the worker with our project and it worked. Company values need to be imported into those countries. You need to work at it. It is hard, but it works.”

When asked about the future, Ermatinger said, “The demographics are what concern me. Fifty percent of our employees will be retiring soon, which means much of our safety culture and experience will walk out the door. We need to continue to nurture that safety culture so that as new employees come in they will embrace it and continue to see the value in effective work safety programs.”

Hale noted, “We actually benchmark with NASA. However, NASA is looking at designing safety around programs, programs that go where people have never been before. But for Disney, for us, it is the volume. Every day we have millions of risks and different types of risks. We assess, audit, look ahead. We must complete our mission safely, as does NASA and everyone on this panel.”

“You know I’ve never met an employee who took a job to do a bad job,” said Dan Nobbe, plant leader for Fiberteq, a manufacturer of glass fiber mat used in the roofing industry. “At our company, everyone is a safety director. We also talk about safety at home. I encourage our workers to take safety equipment and use it at home. I had an accident one time on my bike when a deer walked in front of it. I took quite a spill, and if I had not been wearing my safety equipment I might have lost my right arm and really done damage to my legs.

“As a result, we provide safety equipment for free for those that have motorcycles and for other off-work activities,” Nobbe added. “I’d rather have my employees safe than injured. They are our most valuable asset.”

When asked how safety professionals can become part of the key management team, Shanahan said, “Try something new. Communicate with your boss, such as sending them three or four key facts on safety and why they would make a difference each week, or develop a monthly letter to the CEO providing updates on safety and health, the programs, and more.”

Knowing the business is key, every panelist said.

“Know the business and become a strategic partner. Step out of your lane, go find the capital group, offer suggestions to improve safety through design, or contact the health care planning group, let them know how if they invest in ergonomic programs they can reduce their health costs. Those are just some suggestions, but, yes, step out of your lane,” Ermatinger said.

“You need to look at yourself, do what you are passionate about. Every company has safety; it is a critical component. You do make a difference every day, you save lives,” Hale said. “But you must be passionate, and I bet everyone here is. Also, help make your leaders look good. It will all come back to you in a good way.”

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