Company talks big about safety but pushes production

Lynne Curry

Q. In our construction company, production is king. Every year the head guy gives a rah-rah pitch at the beginning of the season to "work safe and go home to your families." And then the shortcuts begin. Toward the end of the season, things get worse; as the weather window for outside construction narrows, employees take increasing risks.

Last week we had a horrible accident. As a result, one of our biggest clients convened a meeting and chewed our top managers' backsides. Our managers made big promises and told our clients they've mandated me to achieve a zero-incident safety culture. I should be excited because for years I've been singing the unheard safety song in our company. The problem is: I don't think top management really means it. I don't want to be the whipping boy when safety gets in the way of production. So I'm trying to decide: Should I stay and tackle this or should I exit now?

A. If you stay, you can do tremendous good.

Given your concerns, start by having an honest discussion with your company's managers about what it really means to give priority to safety. For example, because safety takes priority over production, employees will need to feel empowered to stop any unsafe job without repercussion. Are your managers willing to support this?

Let your managers know that once they ask you to walk out on the safety limb, they can't saw it off. If you're right that your managers won't commit to the hard, consistent work needed to achieve a zero accident rate, you'll see problems surface quickly.

If your managers say they are truly committed to safety, the hard work begins. As Einstein said, "You can't solve a problem with the thinking that created it." In a company that wholeheartedly embraces safety, everything changes.

For employees, working safely becomes a condition of employment. Even one mistake places an employee, his or her co-workers and your company at risk. New employees need full orientation. Seasoned employees need reminders; those who become used to performing tasks may turn off their internal risk sensors.

If you want zero incidents, you need to create a culture that reminds everyone to "stay alert" and "if you see it, you own it." Every employee needs to focus on safety at all times. Employees and supervisors need to know that anyone who sees an unsafe act can stop the job first and ask questions later.

I urge you to give this your best shot. You may save a life.

Q. Some of our employees meet every Friday evening at a local bar. Two of our supervisors also go over there at 5:30. As a perk, we reimburse the supervisors and the employee of the week for their first beer. Last Friday, things got raunchy and our employee of the week got into a fight with a supervisor's lady friend. Our employee got hurt and gave us her emergency room bill. Should we reimburse her?

A. By rewarding your employee of the week and reimbursing your supervisors' first beers, you've created a work-related social event that gives you potential liability for whatever happens. At the same time, if you reimburse this employee, you open the door to reimbursing others who get injured when fighting.

Before you decide, get a clear picture of what happened. Did your employee start the fight or did she simply fend off the other lady? Also, check with your insurance carrier; your employee's injuries may be covered by workers' compensation.

Once you have all the facts, you have several decisions to make: Should you pay her medical bills? Does she merit discipline? Should you start paying for an appetizer rather than a beer?

Management/employee trainer and the owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc., Dr. Lynne Curry provides columns to newspapers in multiple states. For questions, Curry can be reached at