Make Safety Second Nature

A strong focus on building the right corporate culture is crucial.

By Michael R. Gambrell, The Dow Chemical Co.

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Recognition also is a powerful motivator. That’s why Dow encourages both leaders and peers to acknowledge acceptable behaviors. Conversely, unacceptable behaviors have consequences, leading to actions like warnings, stand-downs and even dismissals.

4. Establish bold goals. Rather than settle for incremental EH&S goals that are easily attainable, I urge companies to push the envelope — to set aspirational goals that truly will drive change. While you’re at it, why not expand your goals to include the impact you have on your communities and the world? And why not be transparent and public about your progress? While gutsy, these actions will galvanize your organization, drive accountability and innovation, and accelerate results. You might surprise yourself at what you can do. We’ve found that as safety culture evolves to a higher level of achievement both health and environmental performance likewise become an integral part of the overall EH&S culture and symbiotic with one another.

In 1996 Dow announced a set of ambitious 10-year goals designed to raise the bar on EH&S performance and protect our license to operate. For example, we said we’d reduce injuries and illnesses; leaks, breaks and spills; transportation incidents; and process events — each by 90%. Frankly, people were skeptical and we didn’t even know how we’d achieve or measure these goals. But our stubborn streak to “do it better” persevered and we achieved an 84% improvement in safety performance for Dow employees and contractors. Our initial $1 billion investment actually led to a savings of more than $5 billion — but the true payoff is in the human and environmental benefits. Over this 10-year period, nearly 13,000 employees and contractors did not suffer an injury or illness, more than 10,500 leaks, breaks and spills did not occur, nor did 1,100 process safety incidents.

Building off that momentum, in 2005 Dow announced an even more audacious set of 2015 sustainability goals. These go beyond traditional EH&S metrics to address some of the world’s most difficult challenges — such as climate change, energy efficiency and clean water. Our 2015 goals not only set higher standards but also inspire our people to greater levels of innovation and responsibility. Today, that includes a stronger look at the wellness of employees, to keep them even safer on and off the job.

Dow didn’t just quietly publish our 2005 and 2015 goals, either; we rolled them out publicly and continue to post our progress on Furthermore, we never compromised, despite several major acquisitions including Union Carbide and Rohm and Haas. This sent a clear message to existing and new employees that Dow is serious about our EH&S commitments and the value we place on our people and communities. Everything else must come second.

5. Learn and leverage. I can’t over-emphasize the value of creating a learning organization focused on prevention and continuous improvement. The best system is one that teaches safety behaviors and operating disciplines and that keeps you engaged with industry best practices. While the goal is to prevent incidents, you still need a mechanism to learn from your mistakes. At the same time, you should be flexible enough to deal with new issues and challenges — from texting while driving to integrating a new company into your operations. In a sense, you are constantly reinventing yourself to improve yourself, which is what learning is all about.

At Dow, all employees must complete ongoing computer, field and classroom training programs that are tailored to the specific job and reinforce workplace safety practices. Our operating disciplines provide in-depth policies and procedures for safe behaviors in all working environments, which leaders reinforce. We also have processes for managing change, assessing risk and documenting the lessons learned from incidents and near misses. We openly share these learnings globally across all functions, businesses and geographies to reduce repetitive incidents. For example, after several near misses involving grating last year, a process was developed to paint grating clips a different color each year to indicate which clips have been inspected. This practice originated at one facility and was leveraged globally.

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