Faces of EHS, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Faces of EHS: Michael Batts on Moving Beyond Compliance

Michael Batts’ career began in a farming ranching community working with his father in his shop learning the ins and outs of fixing and repairing things. In high school, he developed a love for auto sports and that ultimately piqued his interest in safety. His passion for safety and health grew as he entered the manufacturing workforce as an operator and repair person in a large steel mill. He has a degree in occupation safety and health and in environmental management.

Currently, he works as the North American HSE senior manager at CHEP, a global leader in managed, returnable, and reusable packaging solutions with a North American workforce of 4,000 associates across 97 locations. He works with a team of 31 HSE professionals to help the business reduce their North American injury frequency rate by 45% and reduce their North American LTIR (lost-time injury rate) by 23% in 2022 using HOP and Safety Differently principles. Michael also consults in general industry, construction, and mining.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Michael to discuss how he got his start in the industry, his thoughts on safety culture, and tips for moving beyond compliance.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

I officially entered into HSE while working as an equipment operator/repair person at a large steel mill. Due to unsafe conditions and some serious injuries, I changed my education path from majoring in Mechanical Engineering to Occupational Health and Safety and ultimately my profession. As a union worker, I partnered with members of management to put differences aside endeavoring to make real change happen.

Q: Who has been your biggest influence in the industry?

Although I never met him in person, Charlie Morecraft’s story of suffering severe burns from a choice he says he made influenced me to explore ways to improve the condition of the workplace. Although he takes a lot of the blame for the incident in his video “Remember Charlie,” I am a firm believer that building defenses to improve the context of the work environment will protect people when they make mistakes. My current director, Sara Wallon, has further influenced my recent career plan by helping me to understand executive level engagement and the value of forging strong bonds with executive leaders to help further deliverable HSE initiatives. 

Q: What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

There’s actually two. The first is creating “No Tolerance Policies” and posting “Days Without an Incident” signs. In doing so I learned that these good intentions actually stifled reporting and prevented a lot of learning and sadly lead to some valuable associates losing their jobs. This mistake indirectly caused future injuries due to terminating those associates closest to the work that had intimate knowledge of the deviations all the employees were taking just to get the job done.

The second is not taking HOP and Safety Differently approaches seriously when I first read the literature supporting the philosophies. Instead of embracing forward thinking, I stuck to old traditional approaches like believing there is one root cause to all incidents and that if we can just fix the person then we can achieve ZERO. I learned that people are not the problem to be fixed but are the fix to the problem if we use “Empathetic Evaluation” to really seek to understand how hard it is for them to get work done safely.

Q: What’s your favorite and least favorite part about working in the industry? Would you change anything?

My favorite part of working in the HSE is seeing workers really open up during a learning exercise and feel comfortable enough to describe to leadership how hard it is to work safely in their current operation. My least favorite part is seeing leaders’ default to traditional approaches that blame the employee and use the absence of recordable incidents as a measurable objective. Often, ZERO incidents mean ZERO reporting until the serious injury occurs as a consequence to using these types of platitudes.

Q: What are your thoughts on safety culture? How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

I like the way my friends at workplacelarningsystems.com articulate culture: “A safety culture definition sounds simple—the attitudes, beliefs, and values that employees and managers have in common about their physical and emotional safety while in the workplace. Most businesses and organizations want their employees to work safely. A thriving safety culture reduces risks and costs associated with injuries, employee turnover, poor product quality, lack of efficiency, low production, and bad customer service.

Unfortunately, most organizations do not know how to create a positive workplace safety culture. Safety culture change does not have to begin with the top executive management. It can begin in a single plant facility, or even a single department within a facility. However, at some point decisions required to improve safety will affect production, quality, and finances in the short term, even though the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term costs. Injury prevention improves morale, teamwork, and processes, which will turn improve production and quality while reducing risk management and workers compensation costs.”

Q: What are your tips for moving beyond basic compliance in a safety program?

Compliance usually involves adhering to minimum regulatory standards and company rules, then punishing employees for infractions. However, just conforming to the black-and-white letter of the law will not bring about real change to improve safety and health. There are many tips to go from compliance to a caring culture and it starts with an essential component of a healthy safety culture. And that is by engaging the entire organization so front-line employees feel comfortable enough to voice their ideas and concerns without reprisal.

Operational learning teams that lead off with leadership setting the tone then humbly excusing themselves set the stage for a group of workers to speak freely, with a non-biased facilitator directing the learning. The topic can be: “How hard is it to get work done safely”? Gleanings from these empathetic endeavors can bring business beyond compliance into a real caring and just culture.  

Q: What safety concerns or issues do you think need more prioritization in EHS programs?

Management of change to ensure cross functional analysis of new systems. Furthermore, it is vital to include the people closest to the work since they will be the ones using whatever is implemented. Often, the leadership team will design and implement a system that does not perform to their expectations and creates hazardous conditions, if those closest to the work are consulted, then a better, safer system will result.

Q: What will be the impact of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles on the EHS industry?

Both ESG and EHS can help companies avoid costs and decrease risks, ESG factors also have the capability to draw investors, attract new customers, retain employees, tap into new markets, and more. However, companies can get a passing grade even when you disagree with their policies. ESG investments essentially encourage companies to do better. But portfolios can still contain corporations that you think fall short.

Certainly, EHS and ESG are not the same but there are many similarities and in fact, EHS professionals are already performing tasks and assembling metrics that relate to ESG. For example, if you’re doing any of the following, you’re likely dabbling in metrics that you can report on in ESG initiatives. The impact may be what is mentioned before those investments can be made into subpar enterprises.

Q: How will new safety technologies influence the work being done by EHS professionals?

Artificial Intelligence is a newer technology, especially computer vision which is beneficial for many professionals in that it can monitor employee interactions, detecting potential hazards, and providing real-time alerts. This delves into wellness and cognitive demand in that thermal cameras can be used to detect heat stress in workers. I also like some of the Apps, like HOPTIMIZE that are being developed to help leaders guide and capture their Operational Learning conversations with those closest to the work. This forward-thinking approach ensures employees are viewed as the solution agents and not a problem that needs to be fixed.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of being patient enough to prepare well to make the career change and carefully choosing the companies I work for. It took time to find a company that shares my values when it comes to HSE and cares for its people in an ethical and empathetic way.

Q: Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Educate yourself strategically and earn as many relevant certifications and designations as you can to fortify your knowledge base and build up your profile. However, resist the urge to let any status go to your head. Stay humble and when asked questions do not jump to answer in an effort to appear intelligent, take the time to do good research and provide accurate data. Never stop learning and don’t ever think you have learned everything, keep up with current trends and engage in continuing education. After I solidified my standing as a safety traditionalist, it was very difficult to accept HOP and Safety Differently principles.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

My final thoughts are to encourage readers to take an open-minded serious look into Human Organization Performance HOP principles to view Safety Differently. Here are the five principles of HOP, according to Todd Conklin:

  1. People make mistakes: It’s a normal part of being human. Designing systems that can withstand errors prevents injuries.         
  2. Blame fixes nothing: Thought leaders have long known about the corrosive nature of blame, yet it is still a common reaction to workplace incidents.
  3. Context drives behavior: Context is the circumstances that form the setting for an event, such as fatigue, production demands, or broken equipment. For every workplace injury, various circumstances lead to the behavior that resulted in the injury.
  4. Learning and improving are vital: The whole point of analyzing workplace injuries is to prevent them from happening again, but many organizations see the same types of injuries over and over.
  5. How leaders respond to failure matters: What happens at your organization when things go wrong? Is failure seen as an opportunity or a precursor to an organizational shakedown?                                                                                                                                                                  

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