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The PPM Blog

Chainsaws and Flip-Flops: The Evolution of a Safety Culture

a man wearing a suit and tieContributed by Mike McCown, Principal, PPM Consultants

I have often heard the Oscar Wilde quote “with age comes wisdom”, a reference to the fact that most people are able to use their lifetime of accumulated experience and knowledge to exercise good judgement in all manner of situations that arise. PPM was founded in 1994 by a handful of 30-year-olds, and after three decades in business, I often wonder how we survived those early years given our lack of wisdom. One example is our health and safety program, which has crawled from the primordial ooze of our early days to the robust program we have in place today.

A few examples may help illustrate this evolution. Tim Powers, now a PPM principal, joined the firm in the early days after many years with a large national firm. One of his first successes was to score a meeting with the environmental manager of a major oil company. In attendance was Shawn Ivey, a current partner in the firm, who was dumbfounded to hear Tim open the meeting by simply stating the word “lightning” in his south Louisiana accent. He went on to explain the hazards associated with lightning, and how we like to open all meetings with a “health and safety moment”.  Shawn was not sure what to think, only to find out later that this was common with large corporations. We quickly adopted this wise practice, one that continues to this day.

Tim then pushed hard for us to get our fledgling health and safety program up to industry standards. It was not that we did not care about the wellbeing of our employees, we just had an air of youthful invincibility and thought having a Health and Safety Plan (HASP) in the truck on a job site was sufficient. But we went to work on putting a real program in place with entrance and exit physicals, training, and a significant level of organization, tracking, and reporting. We initially assigned part-time responsibility for the program to Jeri Thrasher, one of our more talented technical professionals. It did not take long for this to evolve into a full-time position, with additional support by safety coordinators assigned to each office location. Jeri increased safety awareness through job hazard analysis, mandatory training meetings, and “near-miss” reporting. We provided awards to those who routinely identified hazards. We became extremely knowledgeable on OSHA regulations, insurance requirements, health and safety tracking metrics, and subscribed to numerous third-party health and safety reporting services used by industry to monitor contractor performance. We required our subcontractors to mirror our policies.

Slowly but surely, risk awareness increased throughout the firm, and our incident rates decreased. This awareness spilled over into our personal off-the-job lives as well. I recall my partner Shawn Ivey once stating, “I used to cut limbs on my property with my chainsaw in flip-flops, but now I wear steel-toed boots, safety goggles, and a hard-hat”.  This made a real impact on me, leading me to be much more careful in my own personal life. Incidentally, Shawn is now the Principal-in-Charge of our corporate Health and Safety Program, exercising the wisdom gained from many years of experience in our business.

Health and safety is now an established part of our company culture. Not only do our clients demand it, it is the right thing to do by our employees. A strong health and safety program is indispensable for safeguarding employees, ensuring compliance with regulations, and fostering a safe and productive work environment. It is an investment that pays dividends in the form of a healthier, more engaged, and more efficient workforce. Below is a summary of the key components of our program:

  • Management Commitment: Our commitment to a safe work environment is led by the leadership team who actively participate in safety meetings, integrate health and safety into daily activities, and lead by example.
  • Comprehensive Written Policies: These include substance abuse and medical surveillance, training and competency, health and safety plans, inspections, incident reporting, recordkeeping, contractor management systems, and a disciplinary and incentive program. The program adheres to OSHA standards and includes over 45 written regulatory and best-practice programs, enforced by safety representatives under the Health and Safety Director’s guidance.
  • Substance Abuse and Medical Surveillance and Enforcement: PPM enforces a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, with medical monitoring provided by licensed professionals. Our program includes pre-employment and random drug screening, pre-access screening, post-accident screening, suspicious behavior screening, baseline and annual medical monitoring, and exit examinations.
  • Training and Competency: Employees receive training through instructional events, safety meetings, and tailgate meetings. Competency is established through education, certification, work history, testing, evaluation, and observation. Training frequency is based on regulatory compliance or best practices, with third-party providers offering specialized training.
  • Health and Safety Plans (HASPs): HASPs are created for all site projects to address known or anticipated hazards, with plans tailored to each jobsite to ensure a safe working environment.
  • Inspections and Stop-Work Authority: Routine random inspections are conducted to ensure safety procedures are followed. All employees have the authority to stop work immediately if unsafe conditions or behaviors arise.
  • Incident/Near-Miss Reporting and Investigation: Near-misses are reported and reviewed to address hazards and prevent escalation. Incidents are investigated to determine root causes and implement corrective measures.
  • Recordkeeping: All health and safety-related documents are retained in accordance with regulatory requirements, with employees granted access to appropriate materials.
  • Contractor Management Systems: PPM uses third-party verification systems for health and safety compliance and is a RAVS Plus-certified employer through ISNetworld.
  • Disciplinary and Incentive Program: An incentive program rewards employees for improving the health and safety program, while disciplinary actions are taken against policy violations.
  • Continuous Improvement: A strong health and safety program is not static; it evolves with new insights, technologies, and regulations. Continuous improvement is key to adapting to changing work environments and maintaining a high level of safety.

I began this article with the Oscar Wilde quote “with age comes wisdom,” but that is not the complete quote. It actually reads “with age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”  Working safely should be a core value in all companies, not just a priority, as priorities are subject to change. If your organization has not established a solid health and safety program, I encourage you to exercise wisdom and take the necessary steps to up your game.

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