Instead of reacting to the accidents and injuries, we have to get in front of them and be proactive.
To address this topic I find myself reflecting on a tragic day back in the year 2000. The day started as most days do in the solid waste industry, very early. After a 4:00 am Safety meeting was dismissed, I was speaking with some of the drivers. I was the Roll-Off Manager and this meeting was also attended by some of the rear load drivers. The other departments had their drivers attend my safety meetings because they were powerful and emotional. A rear load driver (we will call him Billy) said to me, “Are you going to need me this afternoon Mr. Boss Man?” Billy would help out after his shift if we needed him. I told him, “Maybe, but be careful out there buddy it is snowing pretty hard and the roads are slick.” “You know I always am,” Billy said. Billy would lose his life about an hour later.
This is what is believed happened to him. He had stopped across the street from a trashcan that he needed to wheel across the road to the rear of his truck. It is thought that Billy was standing next to the can as a car was approaching. The car was partially blinded by the lights on Billy’s truck and the heavy snow. As many drivers added later, the drivers became comfortable with cars passing by very near where they were working. It is thought that Billy may have tipped his hat down to avoid being hit in the face by the blowing snow as the car passed. The young female driver never saw Billy and thought she had only hit the trashcan. The girl’s father took her back to the scene to make sure that was all that had happened. It was then that the girl learned the horrifying truth.
The reality of this tragic accident started a flurry of corrective action. All residential trucks were re-routed to eliminate the driver having to cross the road. This was a massive task and required additional equipment and drivers. It was the best corrective action—the driver was now always protected by his/her truck. In addition, reflective wear was added for all drivers.
Some other things changed as we all tried to process this tragedy. Safety meetings started to have more intensity. There was more involvement by drivers and more information being shared. A reference to always wearing safety glasses was no longer getting reactions like eye-rolling or slumping back in seats. The drivers were on the edge of their seats and everyone was participating. We needed to capture this intensity and make it last. Safety awareness was a hot topic for years to come. Billy’s life would not be forgotten.
As time passed there would be reminders of a lack of awareness on the job. Another injury or accident could be tied back to a distraction or a lapse in attention to the workers surroundings. Awareness in its simplest form is making sure you watch out for yourself. Unless you have someone assigned to watch out for you while you work, it is solely your job to make sure you don’t hurt yourself or someone else. Heightened awareness also involves making sure no one has an opportunity to hurt you. This type of awareness requires a lot of effort, including continuously evaluating your surroundings and taking defensive actions. Even with this type of effort, workers could develop comfort zones (i.e., “I have done it this way for years”).
This is when we as safety leaders have to spend less time in the office and much more time observing their front line workers. After giving an unsolicited safety observation to an outside company I was told, ” Hey, I don’t want my drivers feeling like they are being watched all the time.” After hanging up from that conversation, I thought to myself, well, I do want my drivers to feel like they are being watched all the time. That gives the driver every reason to follow the procedures and guidelines set forth in their training. By observing, each shortcut can be quickly identified and corrected.
Had we as leaders identified the practice of standing near the road as a car speeds by as something that needed to be corrected, we my have prevented Billy from losing his life. Awareness is the key and it is up to us—the teachers—to make sure each worker understands how to keep himself safe.
There are more stories that I can share, but the bottom line is this. We must stop reacting to the accidents and injuries. We have to get in front of them and be proactive. I used to think everyone could see the dangers that I could see. This could not be farther from the truth. Risky behavior is being taught every day. Some of the so-called reasons are: it’s faster, it’s easier, it costs less. Accidents and injuries come right off our bottom line and we have a moral obligation to prevent them from ever happening. Our industry has issues with the simplest task and decisions. Decisions like: should I tarp this load? Should I put my DOT bumper down, just for this short trip? Of course, the answer to both is yes, but both take more time and effort. We can’t see these things from our offices. We have to continually observe/train and teach. Our workers might not like us doing this but they need us to.
Safety culture is surrounded by this awareness program. If you have ever gotten discouraged as you are working towards your goals, don’t be. I have seen companies that have achieved positive safety cultures. Drivers’ awareness would make your head spin—the steps they take in their everyday routines shouts out, “Nobody is getting hurt on my watch!” It can be achieved my friends, it just requires our nonstop effort.
Keith High is President of Highco Safety (Auburn, IN). Started in the trucking industry at the age of 17, he now has 40 years under his belt and counting. Keith has worked for various haulers and been a driver as well as in warehousing, solid waste and metal recycling with roles in leadership as a front line worker. Starting Highco Safety in 2011, safety leadership is his passion and provides rewards unmatched in other fields. Keith can be reached at (260) 437-0388, via e-mail at email@example.com or visit www.rolloffsafety.com.