EHS on Tap: E70 Steve Roberts Talks Safety Culture Best Practices for Our Safety Stand-Down Week

Steve Roberts, Safety Stand Down Week, EHS on Tap

This week is the EHS Daily Advisor’s Safety Stand-Down Week, and if you’re looking to improve your safety program, it will be difficult to do so without paying close attention to your organizational safety culture and implement best practices. Here to help is Steve Roberts, PhD, cofounder and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions and a safety culture and behavioral safety expert. He has some best practices to share that will help environment, health, and safety (EHS) managers boost their organizational cultural efforts and build safer working environments for all employees companywide.

Justin Scace: Hello, everyone, and welcome to “EHS on Tap.” I’m your host, Justin Scace, senior editor of the EHS Daily Advisor. This week is the EHS Daily Advisor Safety Stand-Down Week. And you can’t build a better safety program without paying close attention to your organizational safety culture. So, for today’s “EHS on Tap” podcast, we’re chatting with a safety culture and behavioral safety expert who has some best practices to help environment, health, and safety managers boost their organizational cultural efforts and build safer working environments for all employees companywide. Joining us on the show is Steve Roberts, PhD, the cofounder and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions. For the past 30 years, Steve’s areas of expertise have included the implementation and evaluation of behavior- and people-based safety processes, the assessment of organizational culture, management systems design, organizational leadership development, and reducing human error in the workplace. So, Steve, welcome, and thank you for joining us on “EHS on Tap” for our Safety Stand-Down Week.

Steve Roberts: Great. It’s great to be here, and thank you for having me.

Justin Scace: Absolutely. To start things off, I mentioned just a couple of things in the introduction, but could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career in safety?

Safety culture and training

OhLanlaa / Shutterstock.com

Steve Roberts: Yes, I started my interest in safety really as I was putting myself through college as a carpenter and as a painter, a concrete form setter, and a variety of other construction jobs. And really, after a few incidents at those jobs, I developed more and more of an interest in safety. For example, a coworker shot me with a nail gun one time; walking on heights with no fall protection; a coworker dropped a hammer on me from scaffolding two stories above, hitting me in the head with a hammer, which may be the result of my issues now; and not having enough ladders and being told just to build my own, but after 2 weeks of using the ladder that I built, it started to fall apart. So I was not a great carpenter, as evidenced by my ladder falling apart. But it gave me a strong interest in safety, which I carried on through when I was in grad school.

And actually, part of my PhD dissertation was to develop at least a precursor to our current safety culture survey that we currently use in our consulting business. Back in 1991, I was actually working part time with the Center for Applied Behavior Systems out of the Psychology Department at Virginia Tech, as well as half time out of the Center for Organizational Performance Improvement in the Industrial Engineering Department at Virginia Tech. And there was a group of people in each of those departments, and we found that we worked well together. So back in 1991, we started working together. After a few years, back in 1995, we decided to all leave the university, except for one of our partners, Scott Geller. He was a full professor at the time, and you’re allowed to be a full professor and continue with your university work. But the rest of us quit the university work. We formed Safety Performance Solutions in 1995, and we have been working with organizations in this capacity ever since.

Justin Scace: That’s amazing. So, you’re here with us during the EHS Daily Advisor‘s Safety Stand-Down Week 2021. So as our listeners are taking a pause here to consider safety, what are the top cultural and/or behavioral safety factors that they should be keeping in mind?

Steve Roberts: I would say to make sure we begin with some form of an assessment. Instead of just beginning with what you think might be an issue, formalize that in at least some type of way. Sort of figure out what’s working and what’s not working. We often do this with our safety culture surveys, small group interviews, systems assessments, and leadership behavior assessments. However, other ways of doing this, I guess maybe a more focused way of doing an assessment, are important, as well. For example, years ago, working offshore on an oil rig, we knew that the training was pretty bad because it was a hard time keeping employees. We knew there was a lot of turnover, and the training was just not really up to par. But we wanted to see how bad it was. And so instead of asking people, for example, “Do you know this? Do you know this?” In fact, that was actually how you got a job at the time. There was a little questionnaire, and it said, “Do you know this? Do you know this? Do you know this? Do you know this?” And you marked yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And if you marked yes to all of those questions, you were on the next ship out to the rig.

So again, we knew the training was pretty bad, but we wanted to figure out how bad it was. And so we took a different approach. We call it a “show me” approach to training evaluation. So instead of asking employees if they know certain things and then responding yes or no, we asked them, for example, “Take me to the closest fire extinguisher.” Or, we asked them to explain what it means if a certain red light flashes. One of the more interesting behaviors was related to the lifeboat. So, this oil rig was 100 miles off the coast of New Orleans in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. And one of the things that at least I would have wanted to know and would assume others would want to know is where the lifeboat was and how to get it in the water.

Now, one of the base sort of questions based on the little bit of training that the employees got was “Do you know where the lifeboat is, and do you know how to get it in the water?” And everybody answered yes to those questions. But when we went out to this, using the show me approach, it took us five employees. We had to ask five people before somebody could take us to the lifeboat. And we had to actually ask 10 people before somebody could get it into the water. Now, when thinking about a lifeboat, it wasn’t like a traditional-looking dinghy-type boat. It looked more like a space capsule. So, unless you really knew what it was, you really sort of had to have a little bit of training to really understand what it was and how to get it into the water.

But really, that demonstrates that difference between sort of traditional training assessments and that show me approach. So, I think that’s one of the issues. In addition, one of the biggest misperceptions related to behavior-based safety is that behavior-based safety and a focus on behavior really equate to a “blame the worker” approach. But really, identification of the behavior, of certain risky behaviors, should just be the first step. We really need to get employees who are doing the job to help us analyze why certain at-risk behaviors are occurring. Get the employees on the job involved in developing the interventions to improve those behaviors. Also, just changing behavior itself  is not good enough. So we were doing it risky, and now we’re doing it safe; well, we need to consider how we went about doing that.

Do the methods that we use to bring about that behavior change, does it build people’s person factors, or does it damage certain person factors? For example, do the interventions that we use help build self-esteem and group and personal control? And if whatever we do to try to bring about those behaviors does not encourage and is not done in an actively caring way, then we may have actually done more harm to safety than good. Even if we end up sort of improving the behavior, we need to make sure that those person factors are done in a way that will lead to some long-term benefit—long-term building of those person factors instead of sort of just pounding away at people, trying to get them to change their behavior.

Justin Scace: Excellent, excellent. So, one other thing that I’ve heard a great deal about is, communication is a big part of building a strong safety culture. So, what are some communication best practices that EHS managers can employ in their cultural messaging? And also, maybe what are some missteps to avoid when it comes to communication?

Steve Roberts: OK, regarding communication, there are a number of different types and levels of communication. For example, there’s interpersonal communication and things like active listening, allowing the speakers to finish and maintaining eye contact and asking open-ended questions. There are nonverbal types of communications, facial expressions, eye contact and vocal tone, and hand signals with phrases and that kind of thing. There’s one thing that we really recommend with regard to communication, things like skip-level meetings. Very often, it’s tough for leaders in an organization to really know what’s going on in the organization and what’s happening around them at the employee level. And sometimes, there’s not a lot of motivation for middle-level managers to share certain information. And so skip-level meetings are where hourly employees regularly meet with their boss’s boss’s boss for lunch or for meetings and sharing sessions, that kind of thing, really just to ensure opportunities for hearing and for listening, feeling heard, and ensuring everybody feels valued by senior leadership and sort of has their viewpoint expressed.

So that’s sort of at the interpersonal level, but there’s also sort of organizational-level listening, as well. And that’s where I mentioned before things like safety culture surveys and management systems assessments and leadership behavior assessments, trying to figure out sort of as a group, what are we doing? And I think one interesting finding that I’ve sort of gleaned from doing lots of these listening sessions with employees, one of the questions, is, what do we want from leaders to show that they care about safety? And from sort of hundreds of interviews and discussion sessions and that kind of thing, I sort of summarized it in terms of sort of major categories that we’ve summarized it into. And so let me talk about some of these categories. So what do employees want from leaders to show they care? First is just to show up—for example, visit site locations in person, don’t only rely on reports from others, and understand that others may have a motivation to keep some information from you. So again, the first step is to just show up in person in order to see for yourself what’s going on.

The next major category I call “get your hands dirty.” What I mean by that is get out of the meeting rooms. Don’t just show up to the meeting room; get out of those meeting rooms into the production, operation, and construction field areas, and see firsthand the conditions and equipment and procedures employees must use. The third would be to bring your checkbook. So I don’t just mean throwing money at the problem. What I mean by bringing the checkbook is to make sure that we are doing proper assessments and, based on those assessments, we are providing the needed tools and equipment, personnel, and other resources to not only allow but also encourage jobs to be performed safely. Excuse me, we really need to ask ourselves, do we see safety as a viable outcome to invest in or simply a cost to control?

And so what I mean by bringing the checkbook is making sure we’re investing properly in safety and not just seeing it as a cost to control. And then finally, what employees want to see from leaders to show they care is to make sure we take a more comprehensive approach. And when there are issues that occur—injuries, property damage, issues, or incidents that pop up—we need to make sure that we aren’t blaming people for system problems. For example, the identification of at-risk behaviors should be the beginning of the analysis, not the end. Consider how employees might currently be inappropriately rewarded for risky behavior or inappropriately punished for safe behavior. Consider all the factors like trading and production pressure and excessive overtime and formal and informal rules and procedures of tool equipment and equipment and what employees have to work with to figure out why this incident occurred. And was it really an individual issue, or was it a system issue where anybody in that chair, in that position would have potentially had the same problem or the same issue?

Justin Scace: That’s great. Now, you’ve helped so many organizations and professionals achieve a better safety culture, and you’ve shared some great stories with us so far today, but could you tell us a couple more, just one or two of your favorite stories from the field—perhaps some success stories that might be helpful to our listeners as they strive to build a better safety culture?

Steve Roberts: Sure. Some stories I have are more interesting or funny. Others, though, I think might be more important in terms of sort of examples where I felt I might have actually done some good in preventing some injuries. So, they might not be as entertaining or as funny as some of the stories I have. But examples of some of the things where I really felt useful include finding where employees were systematically working too close under a high wall at a mine where they could have been crushed by falling rock; finding a severe hydrogen leak in a lab that was not taken seriously; and getting the higher-ups to really sort of listen to the employees there and taking a closer look at the hydrogen leak and finding out that it really could have caused an explosion there where a lot of people were working.

Also, I found that some haul truck drivers were consistently working 18 24-hour days, with limited breaks, and actually being criticized from their supervisor when they asked to take a break and the senior leaders didn’t know this was going on at that level of the organization; I sort of brought light to that—fatigue not being taken seriously. I find a lot of what I do sometimes is listen to the employees and what their issues are and listen at all levels of the organization and sort of shine a light in the areas or on the areas that really need some additional attention. There was a military base commander who wasn’t allowing any criticisms or discussion of risky behavior to be reported above his level at the base, causing a culture of fear, and all kinds of risky things were happening. But everybody was afraid to go over this person’s head because they were told there would be severe punishment if anybody discussed anything outside of the base.

So, finding things like that really made me feel sort of useful. But there’s one interesting story I want to expand on a bit, and this happened when I was following up on a safety culture survey with some interviews. And one of the questions on the safety culture survey talked about being punished: Are employees punished for having a work injury? And at this particular site, a petrochemical company with about 500 people, there was about, gosh, an 80%–85% response rate of employees saying, “Yes, we are punished for having a work-related injury.” And that was the hourly employee level. We stratified the results, and we also had the results from the site leadership. And of site leadership, 0% of the site leaders said that employees were punished for having a work injury. And so, we followed this up with some interviews. And during the leadership meeting first, one person threw out an idea that maybe this is what they’re referring to.

Somebody else would say, “No, I don’t think that’s it.” Somebody else would bring up something. “No, that probably isn’t it.” At the end of the meeting with the leadership, the conclusion was, “I have no idea why they think they’re being punished. It’s just, it makes no sense to me.”

Then I had a meeting with some hourly employees. In the first meeting I had, one of the employees stood up and said, “I’ll tell you what’s going on. I’ll say exactly how we’re being punished.” He said, “I was just injured about a month ago. You know what they made me do? They made me stand up in front of all my coworkers, all of my friends, everybody, make a fool out of myself by telling everybody what a stupid thing I did, how I got hurt, how it was all my fault, and really feeling very punished.” Whereas leadership saw that situation as not punishment; that’s continuous improvement and learning from our mistakes. But at the hourly employee level, they saw that sort of standing up and talking about what they did, how they got hurt, as a pretty severe punishment.

And so I think one of the successes there was that understanding, sort of developing more of an understanding that different groups of people can see the exact same situation, but unless we discuss it more thoroughly, we really get into what people are feeling—not just sort of what the events were but also how people feel about those events. Then we will often not see the big picture, but if we get into it deeply, not only looking at what the situations are but what people feel and think about those situations, we’re going to get a lot more useful information.

Justin Scace: Definitely. Yeah, that’s a really great story. Good advice for folks who are looking to bridge that gap within their safety culture. So, Steve, I have just one final question for you. The focus on safety culture and behavioral safety science has been around for a while now. Are there any new innovations, approaches, or other things to watch for on the horizon within this particular area of EHS?

Steve Roberts: OK, so talking about what’s new with safety and what might be upcoming, that kind of thing. So hopefully this is not going to be a trend, but with the new COVID-related issues—working from home, working in smaller pods, lack of teamwork, lack of interaction, and isolation—we know this is causing certain issues. I’ve mentioned our safety culture survey several times. One of the new additions to the survey, one of the options we have, is a variety of COVID-related questions. And let me just talk about one of these, and the reason I’m going to talk about one of these questions is because I just completed a safety culture survey with an organization, and it chose to add these COVID-related questions. And there was one question that actually was the most undesirable response of all of the survey questions; of the old questions and the new questions, the most undesirable response by far was one of these new questions.

And the new question was this: Pandemic-related restrictions and social isolation are negatively impacting my psychological or physical health. So about 60% of the population at this particular site I just assessed said, “Yes, pandemic-related restrictions and social isolation are negatively impacting my psychological and physical health.” And so again, I’m hoping that this is not going to be a long-term trend and we’re going to soon be getting back to teamwork and interacting and solving problems face-to-face. But to the extent that we don’t, I see this as sort of a bigger and bigger issue. So in addition to that, I would say, especially in terms of behavior-based safety, we’re sort of looking at observations not only in terms of certain critical behaviors like PPE and body position and equipment use and that kind of thing but also in terms of the broader view.

For example, I’ve got a video I show in some training sometimes of a rail car that is being brought into a mine, and it is stacked with blocks, eight high. And the video shows a couple of workers taking this loaded block that somebody had already handled once to turn it into an eight-high stack. And they’re double handling these materials, turning them into two four-high stacks so they could fit into the mine opening. And there were lots of at-risk behaviors happening in this video, sort of showing the problems with turning, at least the problems that these two workers were having turning this eight-high stack into two four-high stacks. There were lots of at-risk behaviors with regard to ergonomics and mobile equipment use and that kind of thing. And when I say what is new or should be new is sort of taking a step back and really more of a systems approach and asking certain questions.

So instead of just looking at body position and whether you are twisting and that kind of thing, we are expanding the definition and what we’re looking for. And so we’re really asking ourselves, “What is it exactly we’re doing? Why are we doing it this way? And can we change anything in the system in order to improve?” So, for example, with this situation, where they’re turning the eight-high stacks into two four-high stacks, we’re sort of taking a step back. And yes, we still want to be observing for things like twisting and body positioning and the height of forks and that kind of thing. But in addition to those types of behaviors, we’re asking the question “What exactly is it we’re doing? Why are we doing it this way? And is there something we can change in the system to improve?” And so with this particular example, yes, what are we doing? We’re taking the eight-high stack, and we’re double handling it, turning it into two four so it can get into the mine.

And so we ask ourselves, “Why are we doing it? Why are we getting our block delivered to us eight high if only four will fit into the mine?” And the answer is, “We’re not ordering blocks eight high; we’re just ordering a load of block, and this is the way it comes.” And so we’re asking, “What can we do to improve?” Well, how about we start asking, whether it’s an internal supplier or an external supplier, “Can we start getting our blocks delivered to us at four high instead of eight?” Now, it might be a little bit more expensive because of the pallets and a little bit of extra handling upfront, but it would completely eliminate the need to double handle these materials and completely eliminate all the at-risk behaviors that we had just seen. It would completely eliminate the at-risk behaviors we just saw in turning this eight-high stack into two four highs.

And so we’re really expanding what we’re looking for beyond just behaviors to making sure we’re also considering those system factors that we could use to improve the situation. In addition, we’re expanding things like the definition of employee involvement. And so we’ve got this one exercise we do with leaders where we’re looking at how to get employees more involved in safety. And so that’s the traditional way of looking at it. How can we get employees more involved in safety? For example, instead of just sitting in a meeting room, listening to a presentation, and getting employees involved and coming with our ideas or helping maybe present the presentation—that’s sort of the standard way of looking at it. In addition to that, in terms of employee involvement, we’re also looking at, well, how can we get leaders more involved with employees? One of the criticisms that employees have is “That leaders don’t understand what I’m going through. They don’t understand my job. They don’t understand how hard this is and why we do it this way.”

And so getting leaders more involved with the employees is an expanded definition of employee involvement, as well. And there’s even a third way, which is that leaders are often sort of in charge of their own little or big silos. And they’re held accountable or responsible for their particular silo. But really, employee involvement can also be expanded to leaders getting involved with each other. And how do we bring other leaders up? How do we get involved with leaders so that each leader is not just responsible for bringing their own department division section up but we’re trying to raise the whole organization.

I was working with an organization where there was a vice president in charge of a certain division, and his injury rate was just skyrocketing. And it was like he had the plague; other leaders were afraid to interact with him and go to meetings with him, sort of like they were afraid it would rub off. And his poor injury rate would reflect on them, as well, where we really should have been bringing that leader in and looking at best practices and how we can really bring the whole organization up. So, if I’m in charge of one division and I’m doing great but I’ve got a peer who’s not doing so great, really from an organizational standpoint, we’re not doing well until we bring all of the divisions up to the level where we are looking to get.

Justin Scace: Well, that’s excellent. Sounds good. There are a lot of new things down the road, too, to consider in the continual improvement of workplace safety. Well, we appreciate you joining us for the EHS Daily Advisor Safety Stand-Down Week, Steve, and thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today on “EHS on Tap.”

Steve Roberts: Great. Thank you. Great to be here.

Justin Scace: Now, we’d also like to thank our audience for tuning in today. And remember to keep an eye out for new episodes of “EHS on Tap” and keep reading the EHS Daily Advisor to stay on top of your safety and environmental compliance obligations. Get the latest in best practices, and keep your finger on the pulse of all things related to the EHS industry. Until next time, this is Justin Scace for “EHS on Tap.”

Steve Roberts, PHDSteve Roberts is cofounder and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions. He earned an MA and a PhD from Virginia Tech, with a focus on Organizational Behavior Management. For the past 30 years, his areas of expertise have included the implementation and evaluation of behavior- and people-based safety processes, the assessment of organizational culture, management systems design, organizational leadership development, and reducing human error in the workplace. Roberts taught the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Seminarfest course “People-Based Safety” each year from 2005 to 2018, and he authored the book chapter “Actively Caring for Occupational Safety: Preventing Injuries with People Based Safety” in Dr. E. Scott Geller’s 2013 book Actively Caring for People: Cultivating a Culture of Compassion. Roberts is also lead author for the book chapter “Principles of Behavior-Based Safety” in the Handbook of Safety Principles, edited by Niklas Möller of Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology and published in 2018 by John Wiley & Sons.

EHS on Tap” is an EHS podcast by BLR’s EHS Daily Advisor. On each episode of “EHS on Tap,” our host will discuss emerging legal, regulatory, and policy issues with industry experts and the impacts to everyday safety and environment professionals. “EHS on Tap” topics run the gamut of contemporary issues facing EHS managers and professionals today.

You can find and subscribe to our podcasts on Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play, iTunes, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcast fix. Be sure to visit our SoundCloud page for a full listing of all of our episodes!