Why Safety Programs Fail to Deliver…

After years in the business of building safety programs, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the lessons learned. These lessons have often been painful, not to mention costly. There are a lot of moving parts to a well-designed program and the components all need to mesh. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself grinding the gears.

  • Connect with employees. The part of your safety program that matters the most is the part that touches the employee. Ingrain the information to your employees via whatever shapes or forms work. All the paper in the world will not help if your employees are not engaged. This is why “Safety Meetings” were invented.
  • Management must lead, not just direct. While a lot of the actual technical parts can be delegated, the senior honchos need to step up and at least be present in the meeting. No cell phones, no e-mails, no distractions. Your presence is sending the message about the importance of this topic.
  • Safety meetings are valuable time investments. Prepare an agenda that talks about the actual job requirements. Engage your employees in the discussion. Talking about regulatory “stuff” in a jobsite meeting can be a turn-off, but sharing ‘war stories’ helps the messages to sink in.
  • When you need a classroom, find one. Safety training cannot be done in a meeting setting because the venue is too transient. For a training class to be useful, it also needs a trainer — not a “reciter.” Safety training also calls for a curriculum that matches your jobsite needs vs. “what it says in the book.” Post-high school learning exercises are fairly straightforward. Confirm the learning with a simple written test and a jobsite observation of the applied skill. Issue credentials for the learning achievement. Hire a part-time trainer if you need one.
  • You cannot “inspect” your way to safety. Your shop, yard and jobsites should have safety inspections. If you keep finding the same deficiencies, recognize that it’s time for an overhaul of responsibilities. Keep in mind that OSHA will conduct free, no-penalty inspections of your company. Yes, you’ll have to fix the problems they uncover, but you won’t get fined when they find them during a requested site visit.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) is cheap; buy the good stuff. Teach your crews to wear it, how to use it, how to care for it and to be conscientious with it. There are many levels of quality out there but let’s face it: if you had to wear that stuff all day, you’d be reaching for the Carhartt catalog. It’s often best to find a local vendor and then engage him in your program. Buying your gear out of a catalog or from a web page might save you a few bucks, but often there’s no ongoing support. A local vendor can provide insight to your business; You buy from them; they work for you.
  • Safety is more than “Don’t Do This.” The best programs will teach, illustrate and exemplify “Best Industry Practices.” Your orientation program should set the stage for learning.
  • Use a lot of pictures. Even the Feds have switched: The new Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) training now has illustrations – signage, warnings, decals, handouts – of things that go “boom!” Find the right picture in a clip art gallery or on the Internet and hijack it into your material.
  • Latino bilingual safety materials are out there on the Internet, so go get ‘em. In fact, this is a good indicator of which source materials are credible and worth your time. If the source took the time and effort to have the information translated, then it’s a good bet that it’s worth reading. Texas, Florida, British Columbia and a few others are way ahead on bilingual education. Here’s a link to Virginia’s Backing Up safely requirement: http://www.doli.virginia.gov/vosh_enforcement/reverse_signal.html. And, here’s a bonus tip: Backing accidents in work zones are way high up on the list of stuff you need to plan and train about in order to avoid. Keep in mind that backing accidents are usually fatal to persons on the ground. If you have not done so already, while you have this page open, download the lesson plan and schedule for this class. Name it the “Best half hour you ever spent on safety.” And, since it’s free, any excuse for not doing it is gone.
  • When you think you’re ‘done’ with your safety program, it’s time to reread this article. The best programs have active leadership from senior management and are continually evolving, adapting and moving forward. Complacency in the safety business is highly toxic. We all want our workers back, safe and sound!


John Meola, CSP and ARM is a safety consultant with Invincia Insurance in Richmond, VA. He uses both construction industry and risk management experience to teach and train and he will be presenting “Top 10 Safety Practices for Pavement Maintenance Contractors,” at the 2015 National Pavement Expo, Jan. 28-31 in Nashville. He can be reached at jjmeola@invincia.net