In September of 1972, I began a nine-year career as a coal miner. With only the sparsest of instructions regarding how to operate a self-rescuer (explanation not demonstration) and a description of light signals, I was shuttled onto the elevator and led on a half-mile hike to the section. Within an hour of arriving at the coal mine for my first shift I was on a production section thrown into the position of ventilation man.
Thirteen years later I began my work as the training manager at Borg-Warner Chemicals near Parkersburg. One of the first things I noticed was that the attention and approach to safety was quite different in the two industries. The coal mine approach was to put you on the job with rudimentary instructions and let you learn while working. (I found this process a scary way to be introduced to one of the most dangerous workplaces in the country.)
In the chemical industry, you were placed with an experienced person for several weeks before you were allowed to operate anything. At BorgWarner in the mid-1980s, when a coffee pot cord got hot or smoked, it was reported as a fire. At every meeting the first agenda item was safety.
In the coal mine, batteries exploded and cables kicked power in water puddles and little was noted other than downtime for the piece of equipment involved. Of course, full-blown, flaming fires, were addressed and reported.
No one in either industry, workers or company personnel, wanted any employee to be hurt or killed. Regardless, the focus on safety in the two industries was different in intensity. Coal miners had stickers on their hard hats and dinner buckets that said, "Safety First, Safety Needs No Luck, Keep Safety in Mined, Think Safely-Work Safely, and Safety Has No Quitting Time." We had a 15-minute safety meeting every Monday, but throughout the rest of the week various shortcuts and risk-taking was commonplace.
When I saw the attention to safety at BorgWarner, I was amazed. However, since a chemical plant accident could threaten whole communities, I came to realize that even more attention to safety was necessary. We instituted communication training across the plant to help all employees talk about safety and production issues. We revamped the entry level training to include 12 days of sessions on the plant, its equipment, and the chemicals involved. Each segment had a pre-test and post-test and a successful grade of 70 percent was mandatory.
Safety at every workplace could probably stand more rigorous attention. Facilitated dialogue about the important business issues can help people internalize and demonstrate needed behaviors. Leader should occasionally ask themselves, "What in our business if we could change it would dramatically improve our performance and safety record?" Because performance and safety go hand-in-hand in the minds of the employees.
R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray's new book, "Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons," visit his Web site www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.