How to minimize safety incidents at your precast concrete plant due to complacency.
By Mason Nichols
A top priority for every precast concrete plant is keeping all employees safe every day. But employees themselves can unknowingly work against this with complacency, which is a self-satisfaction, or confidence, accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. When we repeatedly perform a task with success, we develop confidence. This confidence often leads to accomplishing bigger and better things, but it can also lead to unintentional workplace accidents and injuries. Luckily, there are steps you can take to ensure team members’ confidence doesn’t devolve into complacency.
Safety as a value
Slips, trips, falls, struck-by incidents, caught-in/between – safety risks are found everywhere in a precast concrete plant. The only way to eliminate all risk is to send everyone home and shut down the plant. Clearly, this is not a viable business plan. Safety managers at precast plants are, instead, tasked with finding ways to mitigate risk and protect workers. For Mike Cunningham, environmental, health, safety and sustainability compliance manager for Oldcastle Infrastructure in Telford, Pa., this means supporting a sustainable safety culture of continuous improvement through refining existing programs and rolling out new initiatives.
According to Cunningham, Oldcastle structures its safety program to include several key elements that combat complacency. First, the expectation of safety is not just the responsibility of leadership and safety managers, but instead, of everyone throughout the company. Next, safety is programmed into every decision made, from ordering equipment to hiring vendors, implementing new processes and everything in between. Finally, the company drives risk assessment and corrective action as key components of its approach because safety issues in the plant are a reality.
Oldcastle’s safety methods are robust, but despite the company’s thoroughness, complacency must still be proactively addressed. As Cunningham explained, complacency can be difficult to eliminate because it seems to be built into our DNA.
“Honestly, I believe it’s just human nature,” he said. “After you become acquainted with the work environment and get used to it, that’s when complacency can set in. And that’s with any organization.”
So how does Oldcastle address complacency? For Cunningham, it’s about having the right mindset and making safety more than just a priority.
“Priorities are based on what’s important to you at the time; is more of a value,” he said. “It’s something that’s consistent no matter what – even when a machine is down, and we’ll be behind schedule.”
For safety to become more than a priority, Cunningham suggests safety managers at precast plants focus on two key areas: consistency and employee engagement.
Consistency means ensuring safety is always a part of the conversation, which can be accomplished by beginning every event, including administrative meetings, project kick-offs, morning huddles and more with a discussion about safety. A common question Cunningham expects his team members to ask is, “What hazards will be present that you need to be aware of in order to protect yourself?” If employees begin each day by asking this question, safety has a better chance of remaining top of mind, reducing or even eliminating complacency.
The second piece, engagement, ties into Cunningham’s belief that safety is the responsibility of the entire team.
“Getting employees involved in the process is crucial,” he said. “It’s important to train them to identify a risk and know how to mitigate that risk in their daily operations. We want them to get out there and help with the risk identification process by looking for potential hazards.”
Encouraging employees to be on the lookout for potential safety risks means team members will look out for one another. And when every team member is diligent about protecting everyone else, complacency is no longer an option.
Safety as empowerment
Like Cunningham, Ruben Gallegos, safety manager for Jensen Precast in Fontana, Calif., believes consistency is imperative for developing a sound safety approach. Gallegos and other members of Jensen’s safety team meet daily with the company’s foremen to discuss what safety issues they have witnessed and which have been addressed. Common questions include, “What do we need to pay attention to?” and, “What have you corrected in your work areas?” The company requires foremen to present at least one area of concern at each meeting. As Gallegos said, if a foreman has nothing to report, then that individual simply isn’t looking.
In addition to facilitating open conversations, Gallegos supports Jensen’s safety program by performing a daily inspection of his facility for hazard identification, developing the programming for the company’s monthly safety training, and putting together consistent safety and environmental reports. Jensen’s safety team also engages in a safety conference call each month with plant managers and general managers to discuss what issues the company is experiencing at each location. In this way, Gallegos can learn about what other branches are doing that could benefit his location and vice-versa. The company even conducts daily safety toolbox talks along with wellness sessions during each of its shifts.1
Gallegos attributes complacency to employees who haven’t experienced a recent accident and have developed high levels of comfort in their positions. Additional issues also arise among employees who go unnoticed performing tasks in an unsafe manner.
“What I’ve seen is when an employee does something that’s unsafe and doesn’t get called out on it or isn’t caught, that employee will continue performing that action,” he said. “And, when an employee does something that doesn’t end up in an accident – even if it’s a near miss – they will continue doing that action until they are stopped.”
This is a major problem, but as Gallegos explained, it can be solved by providing team members with the right tools and empowering them to always be on the lookout for one another. To combat complacency, Gallegos and the rest of the safety team encourage all employees to identify and address issues in the plant as they see them. This approach has worked quite well, and on several occasions, Gallegos himself has been called out for his own hiccups.
He also explained that by empowering employees to look out for one another, team members won’t just get involved – they will take ownership of safety.
Beyond empowerment, the plant in Fontana has also implemented an incentive program in which the entire team is rewarded for extended periods of safety success. If the plant hits at least 60 days without an accident, the facility is treated to lunch. Typically, this is done quarterly, so if there are no incidents in a quarter, everyone benefits.
Ultimately, Gallegos explained employees at Jensen consistently feel valued because they know they are the organization’s biggest asset.
“We could have all kinds of customers buying our products, but if we didn’t have the employees to make it, guess what? No business,” Gallegos said.
There isn’t an exact science to eradicating safety complacency at your precast plant. However, if left unchecked for too long, the negative impact on your company and employees can be devastating. There are many steps you can take to counteract the effects of complacency, including a commitment to your employees’ well-being, consistent reminders about the importance of keeping safety top of mind, incentive programs and more. No two approaches will look the same, but as Cunningham explained – and as Gallegos suggested – everyone must be involved.
“Each organization will be different, but we’re all striving to get to the same place,” Cunningham said.
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.