Getting to Zero

"We teach our client how to engage their people in continuous improvement teams. And then the employees start solving their own problems."

Mike Williamsen agrees the U.S. construction industry is much safer today than it once was. “The technology and tools that we have, from a hardware standpoint, are exceedingly better than they ever used to be.” he said during an October interview.

For example, fall protection PPE has improved significantly, said Williamsen, Ph.D., senior consultant for Caterpillar Safety Services. He explained that he has seen companies increasingly perform confined spaces entries correctly, providing necessary PPE and stationing a spotter outside. Even with improved technologies and tools, incidents can still occur. The question is, why? Do injuries come from conditions or actions?

"Injuries come from actions. A lot of work has been done to improve conditions, but people still get hurt by their own actions; taking shortcuts," he said. "That brings us to culture. The future of safety is about continuously improving technology while understanding it really comes down to getting our culture correct."

Regulations, even OSHA's planned Injury and Illness Prevention Programs standard, do not bring about stronger cultures, he contends. He said the safety profession struggles with more regulation, which spawns an adversarial relationship between industry and regulators. "If I were in the government, I'm sure I'd be frustrated because people continue to get injured," he said. "But writing more tickets doesn't seem to solve anything. There needs be a change in the culture."

For years, Williamsen has helped companies and sites turn around their safety cultures. "Culture, accountability, and a relentless pursuit of zero which engages the people at the floor level" have long been the three pillars of his approach, he said. He headed the consulting work done by CoreMedia Training Solutions, which Caterpillar Inc. acquired last year. He had worked with safety luminary Dr. Dan Petersen and sat down with him in late 2006 for what turned out to be Petersen’s final interview about his career. Professional Safety published an article based on that interview in March 2007.

Petersen's Six Criteria of Safety Excellence still figure in the consulting work done by Williamsen and his colleagues. The six are:

  • Visible upper management commitment to safety
  • Active middle manager involvement in safety
  • Focused supervisor performance
  • Active hourly participation
  • The system is flexible to accommodate the site culture
  • The system is positively perceived by the workforce

Williamsen listed them again in an Oct. 10, 2011, post on his Safety Culture World blog at "An organization needs to identify what has to happen before it is able to make the leap from 'talk' to active and visible involvement that can attain a sustainable culture of true safety excellence. The Six Criteria of Safety Excellence are an effective test for safety initiatives," he wrote.

'Both Understandable and Correctable'
Williamsen said it is not difficult to maintain a culture of excellence once you've attained it, and those who achieve it carry it forward to other sites. He cited as an example The Shaw Group Inc., a large engineering and construction company based in Baton Rouge, which brought in Caterpillar Safety Services during the construction of a power plant in Louisiana. During the first million work hours, with 1,200 to 1,500 new employees on site, the project experienced zero recordable injuries; it eventually tallied more than 3 million hours without a lost-time injury.

Caterpillar Safety Services' part of the project was training and increasing engagement. The employer had very good leadership and involvement from both hourly and salaried personnel, to the extent that the consultant visited only every week or so, he said.

The construction industry consistently has had higher injury and fatality rates than other industries. "I think they are both understandable and correctable," Williamsen said. "We've done quite a bit of work inside construction-related industries and each time we worked with them, we found our approach is very successful with those who have leadership that wants to engage. There is some leadership, of course, that's all about fulfilling the contract and getting the work done as quickly as possible, and if they don't have a lot of interest in safety, they continue to do as poorly as they always did."

Williamsen participated with the electrical construction industry in an OSHA partnership intended to reduce injuries. Caterpillar Safety Services tailored one of its video programs for the industry that is now used throughout North America, he said.

The company's personnel understand the importance of following regulations and observations but mostly advise clients on their cultures by identifying areas for improvement and engaging employees to solve their own safety problems. The process empowers employees to have a voice in the changes that are implemented.

"We run into a few kinds of companies: One with a trigger event -- some sort of serious incident, possibly even a fatality -- and one that's continually harassed by OSHA, and the reason they're harassed is that they deserve it. They've raised a flag, and they need to fix it so they don't have that flag up all the time," Williamsen said. "The third kind is where there's a leadership or a value system that says, 'We don't injure our people.' Most of our organizations are the third kind, where they've generally found that the . . . classical safety programs take them to a certain point, but they plateau. We're giving them an engagement approach that's really based on what Deming did."

It has been used successfully worldwide by companies to improve quality, and clients find it improves safety, as well, he said.

The process begins with a small team, typically five to eight people, that includes both salaried upper management and hourly workers. The Caterpillar Safety Services Safety Perception Survey is used as an auditing tool to evaluate the client’s culture and identify perception gaps in 20 categories. "We look at the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we teach them how to engage their people in these continuous improvement teams," he said. "And then the employees start solving the company’s safety problems. We essentially teach participants the right tools and techniques that allow them to take ownership for safety instead of us telling them exactly what to do."

'You Have to Want to Get Better in Safety'
When offered a management leadership seminar, some managers say they'll give it a try. Williamsen tells them, "I don't want you to give it a try –- I want you to be a pilot site." And there are two requirements: "You have to want to get better in safety. Then, you should engage with us for two to three years." They will begin to see noticeable changes in six to nine months, he said.

Ultimately, the employer has transformed its culture, committed to zero, and been trained in how to achieve it. Managers will know how to influence upstream elements that affect downstream results, such as injuries and near misses.

For global companies, there are masses of workers with little or no technical capability in the developing world, where training may not be what we in North America expect, Williamsen said. "There are some people that are trained technically to be able to work on some difficult issue; technicians in Mongolia, for example. These are really hard people to get or to train. You can't afford to injure these people because they really are delivering your business. So you have to have a safety culture that protects them." Once an employer has developed a culture where these technicians don't get injured, it is not much of a leap for management to decide to do the same for all workers, he added.

"You cannot have good safety performance or a good safety culture if you do not pay attention to the regulations. And that goes back to some work that I did with Dr. Petersen. We talked about traps being in the workplace; one of those traps is a lot of overtime, causing people to be tired. But there are other traps: Confined space is not done well, guarding is not done well. Your people, who don't want to get hurt, they've learned to step around these traps. Every once in a while they're tired, their minds are wandering, and they'll step into a trap and be injured."

He is very much in favor of eliminating Level 1 traps -– the regulations, which are focused very much on conditions. Level 2 is what you see and react to: observation programs. Too many programs don't go beyond Level 1, he said, but doing that is essential if you are determined to reach zero injuries. Higher levels establish accountability, apply the data from the Safety Perception Survey, and establish a continuous improvement team with active participation by employees at all levels. The enterprise becomes passionate about relentlessly pursuing zero injuries, Williamsen said.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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