Safety culture that is rewarded, enforced, honored

When Schneider Electric received the National Safety Council’s Green Cross for Safety Medal this year, it became the first company to receive the council’s two most prestigious awards, Schneider Electric also earned the Robert W. Campbell Award in 2009. What kind of safety program delivers this kind of safety recognition? One that isn’t a program at all; safety is a part of Schneider Electric’s culture today.
By Rich Widdowson, Schneider Electric North America October 12, 2011

I’m very pleased to talk to you about something we’re very proud of at my company: the strong culture we’ve built around safety, health and environmental and why it matters. I can tell you from an employee engagement and business standpoint, it’s made a significant difference in our company.

Eight years ago, we committed to dramatic improvements in our safety performance. We realized that even though we were below industry averages in our safety measures, we were having too many injuries. And if we didn’t decrease our injury rates, we would probably have a death or serious injury. We knew we could be better.

Eight years later, I am pleased to say that we have one of the safest workforces in the world, and we are driving a culture of safety at work and home, as well as driving more awareness and action in healthy lifestyles for our people and their families. We have clearly taken a relatively solid company and elevated it to the next level. Keeping our employees and their families safe and healthy at work and home has become definitive of our culture. It’s part of our DNA.

National Safety Council President and CEO Janet Froetscher presented the Green Cross for Safety Medal to Schneider Electric's Chris Curtis, President and CEO, North America, and Jeff Drees, U.S. Country President. Courtesy: Schneider ElectricWhy it matters?

I’m convinced safety, health and environmental leadership matters at our company and would at yours as well. Why? It really comes down to people. Like many of your companies I’m sure, safety is at the heart of what we do as a business. We work in an inherently dangerous business, energy management. Our people know that if we cannot complete the job safely, we will not do the job. They also know that we all play a role in ensuring that our people come to work and leave work without injury.

We measure our safety performance by tracking cases that require medical attention beyond first aid, lost-time accidents and lost-time days. This has resulted in 75 percent improvements in all of these measurements since 2003.

More importantly, compared to our starting point eight years ago, this means an avoidance of over 500 injuries per year. That’s 500 people a year who are safer than when we began, 500 people who go home safely to their families every night. It goes beyond proving that we care. It’s a responsibility and obligation and something we take very seriously.

There is no question that a company’s safety, health, and environmental performance are also a cornerstone for business success. We see our strong focus in these areas as one of the key drivers of employee engagement. It’s also bringing us substantial business benefits in terms of reduced costs and improved quality, production and productivity. Our performance has generated more than $10 million a year in direct savings, which we call our safety dividend. We reinvest it in ongoing improvement programs and healthy lifestyles initiatives like free health assessments, personal fitness subsidies, on-site fitness centers, and other programs that encourage people to be safe, healthy, and community minded.

Lessons learned

There’s a lot of work behind our safety results and maintaining and improving this level. It doesn’t just happen. Here are some of our keys to success:

Ensure leadership commitment

A safety culture starts with leadership commitment. You have to have strong sponsorship and commitment at the top of the organization. Everyone from our top management on down in our organization are accountable and aware of our safety programs, our results and what’s going on. If we have an injury or event, it’s a system failure—everyone is notified and held accountable.

Our safety performance is also part of how we manage our talent, measure performance and reward performance. One question we ask our managers: if someone working for you gets hurt, do you feel you failed on the job? The answer needs to be yes. We also have an annual performance award for all employees based on us hitting certain key performance measures—20% of that annual performance award is based on our safety measures.

Focus on your most critical areas first

When we started our program, we focused on several key areas to reduce our hazards in the workplace. These were hazards where we had the highest risk of a serious accident.

The four most visible for us were:

  • Forbid any repair work on energized “live” equipment;
  • Ensure all machine hazards are guarded;
  • Mandatory to wear personal protection equipment; and
  • Absolute commitment that if the job cannot be performed safely, it shouldn’t be performed at all.

Pick the ones that make sense for you, where you’re seeing the biggest risk based on a job hazard analysis.

Increase safety training and audits

When we started, we made safety training mandatory for all employees—a very visible way for us to show we were serious and committed. This continues today. All employees are required to take certain courses depending on their job—plant or office employee. We’ve also expanded our program to include more off-the-job training. A good example is our SafeStart program, which focuses on how things like rushing, stress, fatigue, and complacency lead to increased risks of injury, no matter where you are, at work, at home or at play.

We also increased our number of safety audits at our customer job sites in our Power Service Organization, from 225 in 2003 to over 450 last year. The purpose of these audits is not finger pointing, its continuous improvement and sharing best practices and ensuring that we are not only protecting our employees, but also our customers. Our 26,000 people in North America also do a fabulous job of letting us know where things can be improved. Conditions change, plants and offices change, people change. It’s an ongoing effort.

Drive awareness at all levels

Creating a safety culture requires continual communication and reinforcement at every level. From all-employee meetings to daily production supervisor meetings on the factory floor, every communication starts with a message on safety.

All of our locations track days without an accident. We take the time to celebrate locally our key milestone days—90 days, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years. For the bigger ones we always have senior management involved in the celebration.

We also have been active in organizations like the National Safety Council and receive numerous awards for individual plants as well as the excellent company recognition I mentioned earlier. Internal and external recognition of people and teams is key to ongoing progress and improvements.

Advice to others

Just like other investments, safety, health, and environmental performance must be measured, reported, evaluated, and continuously improved. But to create a safety culture, you must make it personal and visible. Set goals and communicate regularly on your progress. Recognize and reward success.

Most importantly, it comes down to people and our obligation to them as leaders. We’re successful because safety isn’t just a program for us, it’s a way of life. Safety, Health and the Environment is not a priority that can be traded off. It is an absolute each day. It’s a leadership imperative and a journey that never ends—to do all that’s necessary to ensure our people come to work and leave work without injury.

Widdowson is vice president of safety, real estate and environment, Schneider Electric North America