It all starts at the top


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Review of the impact of upper management leadership on an organization's safety culture

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  • In any discussion of safety culture or creating strong safety programs, the point will be made that the culture or program must have support from those at the very top of the organization. In industry, the top of the organization would presumably be the CEO, the head of R&D, and everyone in between. In academia, the situation is less clear. Your opinion of who is “at the top” often depends on your position in the organization. Students (and maybe their parents) might consider the professor as the top manager. Faculty are aware of higher ranking individuals. As long as there are people at high levels in the organization who are not supportive of efforts to build a strong safety culture, there will be extra challenges.
  • We have already stated that top management must be committed to building a strong safety culture and committing the necessary resources to the effort. Who is top management? Different organizations may have different types of officials at the top. In academia, there might not be agreement within the organization as to who wields the most power and influence. Looking to other types of organizations, we can identify examples of individuals who are at the top and how they have demonstrated their commitment to safety. We will look at one example from a government lab and two from different levels in an industrial organization. Finally, understanding and appreciating the financial benefits of a strong safety culture facilitate convincing those at the top of the business advantages of safety. Many of these benefits are not apparent within academic institutions such as colleges and universities.
  • The commitment of top management must be demonstrated repeatedly. Ideally, there should be a formal written policy or statement saying that safety is a top priority. In a broader sense, I think academia has underestimated how important this concept is to parents of the students. Parents expect that the school will provide a safe environment for the students. Although this comes up most commonly regarding physical attacks or harassment, comments of this parental expectation arise in cases of serious lab accidents. The top managers must speak about the organization’s commitment to safety when addressing both internal and external audiences. How will the school ensure the safety of students? Who should be contacted if there is a safety concern of students or parents? Employees or students who demonstrate good safety awareness and practices should be recognized. The managers must always operate in compliance with all safety policies and procedures and insist that everyone in the organization does the same. One of my pet peeves is the CEO who has his/her picture taken in a laboratory while not wearing any eye protection. I know all the reasons why they want to do this, which usually boils down to “I don’t like the way I look in those glasses.” They do not realize what a negative impression that picture makes. How much technical expertise does a company or university have if employees are ignorant of or disregard such a fundamental principle of lab safety? That’s another paper for another meeting!
  • Management must provide real and visible continuing support for safety. Actions should support the words. Be aware of safety concerns in the organization and contribute to the solution of problems without stepping on the toes of the subject matter experts (e.g., let’s just eliminate chemistry lab courses, and the students can do everything on the computer). Deal with non-compliance issues directly and fairly. Provide positive reinforcement to those who help build a strong safety culture. One of the oldest expressions in the English language is “talk is cheap”, and that phrase is applicable here. No one ever says that they do not consider safety to be the responsibility of the organization (at least not after losing their first big lawsuit). Allocating adequate resources is crucial. Sufficient staff must be assigned to carry out safety tasks; this might be designated safety professionals and partial assignments to other employees. There must be budgets for safety equipment and facility maintenance items relating to safety.
  • And just who do I mean by “top management”? In industry, the CEO, the head of the Research organization, and everyone in between. In colleges and universities, faculty members are often perceived as top management. But those faculty members realize that they have to deal with department chairs, deans, and maybe a provost, chancellor, or college president. People outside of an academic organization (and students within the organization) do not have a clear concept of the functions of these top managers. In government labs, the top managers might be the lab director and associate directors. Lab managers might be the voice of authority to employees. In some cases, the labs are part of a larger government department that is headed by a “political appointment.” In trying to determine who is top management, ask the following questions. Whose decision cannot be overturned by a higher authority (practical may be as significant at theoretical)? Whose decisions about the budget will overrule any opposition?
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was formerly known as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). Its mission is to promote US innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. NIST is a non-regulatory agency within the US Department of Commerce; it was established by Congress in 1901. There are NIST campuses in Gaithersburg, MD and Boulder, CO. If you saw a list of the major accomplishments of NBS and now NIST, you would recognize some of them. As one example the official “atomic clock” is housed at the Boulder campus of NIST.
  • As is often true with most organizations, an incident causes the organization to review its safety policies and safety management. In June 2008, a scientist spilled a compound containing plutonium down a laboratory drain. The incident was reviewed by both internal and external experts. The final report of the incident review pointed to an overarching problem: “NIST has a very poor safety culture.” Mr. Carlos Gutierrez, the US Secretary of Commerce, appointed six people to a Blue Ribbon Commission to “identify measures that can be used to address organizational and cultural [safety] issues at NIST.” I was appointed to be a member of this commission.
  • NIST has an excellent reputation for its contributions to science and technology. But there were some serious safety issues and some minor ones that revealed a lack of lab safety awareness. The technical workforce resembled that of an academic institution. Half of the workforce are guest researchers (NIST Associates); they come from other organizations to work in the NIST labs alongside the NIST staff. These guest researchers are not required to take any specific safety training in the areas where they will work. For all of the technical workforce, there was no database to track training completed. Guest researchers could not participate in online safety training because they did not have access to the NIST computer system. During our inspections we noticed a lot of signs: “Please keep this cabinet locked” (on unlocked cabinets); “Do not enter this lab . . . If you do enter the lab, stay to the right upon entering”. Many of the labs were extremely cluttered; management told us that the staff had been told that an inspection would be done by the BRC. When we discussed with staff members, what would be appropriate ways to improve safety, we heard responses that belonged to the general category of “We have important research to do.” The facilities needed repair and higher levels of maintenance. These were symptoms that the lab staff did not place much emphasis on safety. People said it was important of course but “we have important work to do and we are on a strict deadline.”
  • Dr. Patrick Gallagher was appointed the Deputy Director of NIST on the day the BRC members traveled to Gaithersburg. He is a physicist and materials scientist who worked in NIST’s Center for Neutron Research. On November 5, 2009, Dr. Gallagher was confirmed as the 14 th Director of NIST. He actively participated in BRC visits in 2008 and 2010. In a presentation to the BRC, he discussed his thoughts on where NIST needed to be and how they would get there. In his list of steps needed to build a stronger safety program, he included such items as: establishing clear and effective line relationships; defining roles responsibilities, authorities, accountability; strengthen supporting management functions; benchmarking other organizations; rebuilding an effective safety office; define clear performance goals and measures; and move from local effort to integrated safety management approach – risk-based prioritization. It was apparent that there was a new Deputy Director in town, and he had thought about the situation and had some clear ideas what needed to be done.
  • Pat Gallagher is respected within the NIST community as a scientist and as a director. He is determined to make safety a top priority. He knows his staff well enough to understand their reaction and response. When the BRC told him that one group of employees seemed to lack enthusiasm for improving safety, he knew which group it was and which individuals would voice the strongest concerns about the distraction of the safety efforts. One approach he has emphasizes NIST’s excellent reputation for research and development. He said the NIST reputation – that “we can do things right” – has been tarnished. He want the staff to develop the same level of excellence in safety as their recognized level of excellence in science and technolgy. The BRC made its report to the Secretary of Commerce in November 2008. Our formal commission expired at the end of 2008. However, Dr. Gallagher asked us to return in 2010 to review the progress in safety management at NIST. They had indeed made a great deal of progress. Pat Gallagher was the main reason for that progress.
  • Dr. Ron Allain was Nalco’s VP of R&D for about 20 years. I first met him during my interview with Nalco. I asked him how Nalco formulated their long term research goals. He sat back in his chair, puffed on his cigar, and did not say anything for what seemed a long time. He reminded me of movie portrayals of someone in organized crime. I learned that although he was reserved and low-key, he made his position known. When I became Nalco’s first CHO in 1990, I had lots of opportunities to work with Ron. He turned out to be a strong supporter of safety and of his CHO. He usually would not make management decisions about safety without talking with me about it. He had a monthly meeting with all the Research managers, and I always had the first spot on the agenda (at 8:00 AM). We brought in some DuPont Research managers to present training to our managers. DuPont provided an introductory text that they wanted the highest ranking manager in attendance to say to the group. His response, “I’m not going to say this stuff”. (didn’t use the word stuff) “They know I’m committed to safety, that’s why DuPont is here.” Then I asked him to please attend as much of the training as he could as a sign of his commitment. I said, “you need to be there.” He agreed and was present for almost the entire 1.5 day program.
  • These three researchers were successive Technical Directors in Nalco’s Boiler Chemicals Department. That was my first department at Nalco, and I worked with Claudia and Roger. Steve Clark was a Ph.D. Organic Chemist (MIT) who had been a Nalco Sales Representative. He instilled a very serious attitude in his department about safety. Claudia Pierce has a doctorate in organic chemistry from the Univ. of Rome; she is outspoken and not afraid to correct her staff when they do not meet her expectations. She and I once discussed a safety problem involving one of her staff members. She commented that this individual should be worried about his failure to follow safety procedures. I told her that “I would not give the fellow a hard time”; she replied “he’s not afraid of you, but he better be afraid of me.” Roger Fowee is a chemical engineer and has become a good friend as well as a colleague. He is a strong safety supporter and often teases me about my role as a CHO. When he learned of small research labs that Nalco purchased, he always sent me an email asking if this new lab was “under my jurisdiction.” These three set the highest standards in a department safety program. They were willing to “volunteer” staff to join safety and emergency response groups. As the staff members moved to other departments, they brought their high regard for safety with them. I remember one case where a former member of the Boiler Chemicals Dept. pulled a scissors out of his pocket and cut a frayed electrical cord. When I heard about it, I knew it was a Boiler person. These three department heads demonstrated how great an influence they had on the attitudes toward safety in their department.
  • What’s the financial benefit of a good safety culture and the resulting good safety performance? Why should the top managers bother with all of this? Why does industry seem to be more convinced of the value of safety? We, in industry, know that good safety is good business! Effective safety programs lead to fewer accidents and injuries. This means lower workman’s compensation and lower insurance premiums. Some companies are “self insured” which means that they pay all medical costs out of corporate funds. They usually have an insurance company contracted to administer the program. Effective safety programs minimize property damage and control hazardous waste costs. Sometimes in academia, faculty and staff have little idea how these costs are handled within the organization. Most importantly, when staff members and students are in a safe environment and working safely, productivity increases. In industry, when an employee is required to take time off due to an injury, that employee’s work must be picked up by someone else. This may require hiring a temporary employee or shifting another employee to this task. Serious injuries usually result in decreased morale as well.
  • It all starts at the top. Top management must be committed and must demonstrate that commitment repeatedly in both words and actions. Management must provide real and visible continuing support and resources for safety programs. These resources should include both personnel and financial support for safety training, equipment, and maintenance of buildings and equipment. Fire drills are a good example of visible support of safety. Your position in the organization influences whom you consider to be top management. The academic organizational structure seems to be more complex in terms of the many layers of management. Good safety is good business. People working in an unsafe manner or in unsafe conditions are going to cost the organization money. Safe workers are more productive workers. Thanks for your attention. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have.
  • It all starts at the top

    1. 1. Kenneth P. Fivizzani Naperville, Illinois It All Starts at the Top
    2. 2. Outline <ul><li>Commitment of top management required </li></ul><ul><li>Who is top management? </li></ul><ul><li>Examples from government/industrial labs </li></ul><ul><li>Financial Benefits of Good Safety Culture </li></ul>
    3. 3. Commitment of Top Management <ul><li>Commitment must be demonstrated repeatedly in both words and actions. </li></ul><ul><li>Written policy or statement (corporate, divisional, or departmental) </li></ul><ul><li>Spoken enthusiastically to internal and external audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Operate in compliance with policies and procedures </li></ul>
    4. 4. Commitment of Top Management (continued) <ul><li>Management must provide real and visible continuing support for safety. </li></ul><ul><li>Positive reinforcement </li></ul><ul><li>Allocate adequate resources </li></ul>
    5. 5. Who Is Top Management? <ul><li>Industry: CEO, head of the Research organization and his/her superiors. </li></ul><ul><li>Academia: President, Chancellor, Provost, Deans, Department Chairs, Faculty Members </li></ul><ul><li>Government Laboratories: Director, Associate Directors, Lab Managers </li></ul>
    6. 6. Case 1 – Government Labs <ul><li>National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. </li></ul><ul><li>Campuses in Gaithersburg, MD, and Boulder, CO. </li></ul><ul><li>Non-regulatory agency within U.S. Department of Commerce; established by Congress in 1901. </li></ul>
    7. 7. Case 1 – Safety Concerns <ul><li>In June 2008, a scientist spilled a compound containing plutonium down a laboratory drain. </li></ul><ul><li>Incident studied by external experts. </li></ul><ul><li>Report pointed to overarching problem: “NIST has a very poor safety culture.” </li></ul><ul><li>Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) established by the Secretary of Commerce. </li></ul>
    8. 8. NIST Safety Issues <ul><li>Half of technical workforce are guest researchers (NIST Associates). </li></ul><ul><li>Safety training not required universally and no database to track training completed. </li></ul><ul><li>Importance of signs, preparation for inspections, serious lack of safety resources. </li></ul><ul><li>“ We have important research to do.” </li></ul>
    9. 9. Dr. Patrick Gallagher <ul><li>Physicist and materials scientist who worked in NIST’s Center for Neutron Research. </li></ul><ul><li>Named Deputy Director in September 2008. </li></ul><ul><li>Confirmed as the 14 th Director of NIST on November 5, 2009. </li></ul><ul><li>Actively participated in BRC visits in 2008 and 2010. </li></ul>
    10. 10. Dr. Patrick Gallagher – cont. <ul><li>Respected as a scientist and as a director. </li></ul><ul><li>Determined to make safety a top priority. </li></ul><ul><li>Knows staff well enough to understand their reaction and response. </li></ul><ul><li>The NIST reputation – that “we can do things right” – has been tarnished. </li></ul><ul><li>Called BRC back after two years to review progress, even though there was a new Secretary of Commerce. </li></ul>
    11. 11. Dr. Ron Allain <ul><li>Vice President of R&D at Nalco Chemical Company. </li></ul><ul><li>Reserved and low-key, but made his position known. </li></ul><ul><li>Strong supporter of safety and the CHO </li></ul><ul><li>Safety training for Research managers; medical surveillance exams for researchers. </li></ul>
    12. 12. Dr. Stephen Clark, Dr. Claudia Pierce, and Mr. Roger Fowee <ul><li>Technical Directors – Nalco’s Boiler Chemicals Department. </li></ul><ul><li>Highest standards in department safety program. </li></ul><ul><li>Eager to volunteer department employees for safety and emergency response groups. </li></ul><ul><li>Department staff brought safety culture to other departments. </li></ul>
    13. 13. Good $afety is Good Bu$ine$$ <ul><li>Fewer accidents and injuries. </li></ul><ul><li>Effective safety programs minimize property damage and control hazardous waste costs. </li></ul><ul><li>When staff members are safe and working safely, productivity increases. </li></ul>
    14. 14. Conclusions <ul><li>Commitment by top management must be demonstrated repeatedly in both words and actions. </li></ul><ul><li>Management must provide real and visible continuing support for safety. </li></ul><ul><li>Your position in the organization influences whom you consider to be top management. </li></ul><ul><li>Good safety is good business. </li></ul>