MRO Q&A: Building a Culture of Maintenance Work Safety

A reader asks what actions should he be taking to improve his plant's safety record.

Question: Our maintenance department has the highest lost-time and recordable-accident rates in the plant for the past two years, and the situation isn’t getting better. What actions should I be taking to improve our safety record?

Answer: By the nature of the work, maintenance personnel face a higher probability of accidents. Welding, cutting, milling and assembly/disassembly are activities far more prone to accidents than turning equipment on and off, filing papers and filling out reports. That said, with good leadership, there is no good reason an employee should be put in harm’s way. There are three key components to any safety program: Leadership, Education, and Celebration/Correction.

There are three key components to any safety program: Leadership, Education, and Celebration/ Correction.

Ideally, safety compliance is a priority concern for the entire organization. Even if it isn't, the department leader has to be capable of and committed to developing and living a safety culture within his or her area. This starts with a genuine concern about the well-being of each and every employee. If the leader is simply reacting to what senior management requires, the results will be diluted. Employees are very perceptive when it comes to gauging the sincerity of intentions. If those intentions are perceived to be insincere, people will not follow them.

The leader also needs to have technical competency in the area of safety. This can be achieved through a staff safety resource person or from outside training. The leader must spearhead the education initiative and the celebration and correction elements, as well as performance tracking and mid-term adjustments.

Education is the second key component. Employees must not only be aware of their current performance but also what the expectations are. They need to understand the actions and activities that resulted in that performance.

It is the leader's responsibility to set expectations. Many companies rely on monthly safety talks to keep safety top of mind. When incident rates are high, you may want to do this twice a month.

Each maintenance function will be somewhat different from facility to facility. Analysis of every major job should be done, enumerating potential accidents and their likelihood. These lists make excellent topics for safety talks. The effort put into developing safety talks sends a strong signal to staffers of the importance of safety to the department.

If workers are simply handed a piece of paper, asked to read the safety message and then sign it, you will certainly not get buy-in and belief that the organization really cares about them. Posters and other reminders of potential risks in the work area, on the other hand, are a great idea. Reports of post-accident investigations should be communicated immediately and reinforced with an in-depth safety talk with all employees. The more attention you assign to this, the greater the awareness on the part of the employees.

All near-misses should be reported and analyzed, with corrective actions communicated to all affected employees. To overcome employee reluctance to report these events, a sense of trust must be developed by the department leader.

Monthly celebrations of accomplishments, even if they are small, are a must. Celebrate as a team, not as individuals. This helps build esprit d' corp within the department, a sense of everyone looking out for everyone else. Occasionally there will be individuals who choose not to operate in a safe manner. After a couple of progressive coaching sessions, corrective disciplinary measures may be necessary in order to uphold the importance of improved safety performance.

Developing a culture of safety is not a one-and-done tactical task and does not happen overnight. It takes a concerted effort of eating, breathing and sleeping safety for years to get it firmly established. Once employees truly believe that leadership genuinely cares about their well being, the most difficult hurdle will have been crossed.

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