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Removing Barriers to Safety Excellence

Safety excellence is one of those terms that most OSH professionals talk about, yet achieving safety excellence can be difficult. During his presentation at ASSE’s Construction Safety Symposium, Chris Golden, CSP, PMP, will help attendees develop a strategy for removing barriers they may encounter on this journey to excellence. ASSE recently spoke with Golden about his presentation and his view on managing OSH effectively in construction.

ASSE: At ASSE’s upcoming Construction Symposium, your presentation will examine how today’s OSH manager should be able to demonstrate how effective OSH management—or lack thereof—can contribute to project success or failure. Why is this such a critical skill area for OSH professionals?

Chris: Our industry continues to be one of the most hazardous in our economy, the costs of medical treatment in the U.S. continue to rise, and our clients and communities are becoming less tolerant of the serious consequences that occur as a result of failing to manage OSH risks. I don’t think many members within the ASSE community would argue that a project shouldn’t really be considered a success if someone lost his/her life in the process of building it. So the need for effective OSH systems is more apparent now than ever before.

Personally, I think the largest detractor from achieving OSH excellence in many organizations, at least in the construction industry, is the lack of focus on aligning and understanding overall project or organizational goals and processes. On most projects, each function is competing for resources in attempt to elevate its own priorities over others. Competition should be saved for the bid room, not within the project team; otherwise, this creates silos and breaks down communication and can degrade overall team focus, leading to misaligned objectives.

Each project team faces the challenge of managing competing “constraints” (e.g., budget, schedule, safety). So I believe that project management systems, including OSH processes, should be as integrated as possible, to avoid the duplication of efforts and misuse of resources.

ASSE: What are some effective ways that OSH professionals can integrat OSH management systems throughout an organization?

Chris: For me, the better you are able to improve communication with your workforce from an OSH perspective, the better you will be able to improve communication overall. For example, most construction OSH systems involve preshift communication relating the risks of the work to be performed. This communication shouldn’t be limited solely to an OSH discussion, but rather should be part of the overall message you want your workforce to receive in order to be prepared for that day’s work.

Another example is scheduling. This is a project management process that typically involves little overlap with an OSH management system. However, the decisions that go into establishing the project schedule can have serious consequences for the individuals who ultimately execute the work. An unrealistic duration within the project schedule can lead to an increased likelihood that workers will be rushed, cut corners, or be required to work longer shifts and become fatigued. Having greater coordination among scheduling, operations and OSH professionals can reduce the likelihood that an activity won’t be completed on time, as well as decrease the likelihood that a compressed schedule will contribute to someone being injured.

The less that OSH is managed as a stand-alone system and the more that it is integrated into other project management processes, the more communication will improve, and awareness of OSH risks will heighten across the entire team.

ASSE: Can you describe some steps of a strategy that OSH professionals might use to better align OSH management with an organization’s overall strategy?

Chris: The first step I will share in my presentation will hopefully provide audience members with a confidence boost. One key takeaway from my presentation is that we—as OSH professionals—have become good at certain aspects of management, such as formalizing processes and systems, measuring and reporting performance, assessing and mitigating risk. So when it comes to the need for business or process improvement, I believe we should also be looked at as an internal resource for improving performance overall, not just OSH processes.

Second, I hope to reinforce that many of us are construction OSH professionals, not just OSH professionals working in the engineering and construction sector. Personally, I’ve made a concerted effort to better understand how our business works beyond the sphere of OSH management and to identify how OSH can be better integrated with other project management processes, not independent of or in addition to them.

ASSE: How about an example or two of how doing so can positively affect an organization’s performance overall?

Chris: One example is risk management. To any organization, risk management can have several meanings. Risk management can refer to managing schedule and budget risks, it can simply mean insurance, or it can refer to managing OSH risks. Rarely, however, are these processes integrated. And often, a project’s risk register will not even mention OSH risks, even if they are of such potential consequence to derail a project as any schedule or budget risk.

At the project level, perhaps no individuals are better trained at evaluating the likelihood and potential consequence of an event than OSH professionals. We should be looked at as a resource when evaluating and developing strategies to manage non-OSH risks, too. This provides another opportunity for OSH professionals to become more engaged with the project team. This type of interaction not only helps improve risk management processes, it also helps the project team become less siloed and more aligned in achieving the same overall objective, including conformance to OSH system requirements.

This brings me to quality management, another area in which OSH professionals can help to improve performance. Project Management Institute defines quality as “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills requirements.” Verifying conformance to requirements is a large part of what an OSH professional does on a project each day. To me, this is as every bit as much a process of quality management as it is an OSH one. The less time an OSH professional has to spend “policing” the project, the more time s/he can spend improving system performance.

ASSE: How can using leading indicators improve project quality?

Chris: The similarities of implementing OSH, environmental and quality management systems are fairly obvious, especially when viewed through the ISO framework. All are based in the foundational concept of plan, do, check, act. So, for an organization that is successful in executing its OSH management system, but lacks sophistication when it comes to quality systems, who is better positioned to help close that gap? It’s another opportunity for our function to add value.

From the perspective of measuring performance and leading indicators, OSH professionals as leaders in the industry when it comes to tracking measures that contribute to the prevention of an event, not only the occurrence of the event itself. Most organizations are tracking such things as employee training, senior management engagement, field observations of performance. We measure these indicators primarily to determine the effectiveness of our systems in preventing incidents. Why should this be any different for the purposes of managing quality to prevent defects?

ASSE: What tips can you share about communicating more effectively to improve stakeholder relations?

Chris: It’s easy to have pride working in our industry. We build things that matter and have the ability to positively transform our communities. Too often, however, our communities only hear about the things that go wrong on our projects: cost and schedule overruns, safety and environmental incidents, ethical breaches, etc. This hasn’t given our industry the best reputation, but we do a lot of great things and can do a better job of telling our story.

Large engineering and construction organizations are now publishing sustainability reports, with OSH performance representing a large portion of content from a social sustainability perspective, and I applaud these efforts. In fact, I would like to see this reporting effort extend down to the regional or even the project level.

However, many organizations do not report sustainability performance to external stakeholders, even when there is a good story to tell, like excellent OSH performance, strong local employment figures or an improvement to the local environment. These reports serve as a communication tool to provide stakeholders with a better understanding of how our organizations value the safety of their people and communities, and can help promote a positive reputation of our organizations and our industry.

ASSE: How can OSH professionals best engage corporate leaders in this effort?

Chris: I think the easiest way is to highlight how positive OSH performance is helping the business overall. The connection between OSH and financial performance has been well established. However, I think there is room for improvement when it comes to establishing a connection between effective OSH performance and reduced risk from an investment perspective.

According to Morgan Stanley, “In 2012, $1 out of every $9 of U.S. assets under professional management was invested in some form of sustainable investment, primarily in public equities.” One of the key findings was the positive relationship between corporate investment in sustainability and stock price and operational performance.

For engineering and construction firms, having an effective OSH management system plays a large role in mitigating social risks from a sustainability perspective. So when it comes to engaging corporate leaders, I think it helps our cause when we connect the dots between reducing risk to people and to our investors.

Another strategy is to make the case for your organization to differentiate itself from its competition. Many projects are now being procured through alternative delivery strategies (e.g., design-build, public-private partnerships). These projects are less likely to rely upon cost as the sole determining factor in a decision to award. With clients moving toward a best-value approach, OSH performance will likely be considered in that decision to award, adding another strategic component. This provides further opportunity for OSH professionals to engage their leadership in the need to outperform their competition and to align OSH efforts with other strategies that are determining factors in securing future business.

Chris Golden, CSP, PMP, is an EHS manager for Skanska USA Inc. in New York City, NY. He has considerable experience in the delivery of high-profile infrastructure programs and the integration of EHS and sustainability systems into operational processes and overall organizational strategy. He holds a B.S. in Safety Sciences from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.S. in Sustainability Management from Columbia University.