Top Down Safety to Change Daily Habits

If the CEO doesn’t make safety a priority, nobody else will, either. If you don’t believe Lars Hellberg cares, ask him to show you his thumb.
Anyone who watches “The Simpsons” knows that Charles Montgomery "Monty" Burns, owner of the Springfield nuclear power plant, is famous for safety violations: rat infestations, cracked cooling towers (held together with chewing gum), and leaky pipes that spill radioactive waste.
But what Mr. Burns doesn’t know is that safety cannot be disconnected from quality, delivery accuracy, and productivity. This was proven dramatically in the 1980s by Paul O'Neill, the CEO of Alcoa. By making safety its primary focus, Alcoa reduced its accident rate to 10 percent of its previous level. And with record safety came record profits.
Safety is an easy topic to pay lip service to: everyone has seen a faded safety poster on a workplace wall. To bring about safety requires not only constant focus, but also a CEO who truly believes in it. So how does Fortaco CEO, Lars Hellberg, convince his employees that he truly cares, that safety isn’t just a passing fancy?
True believer
Hellberg places safety first – literally before quality. “For the last six years I've opened every group leadership meeting with safety,” he says, speaking of the meetings which connect Fortaco's 70 top leaders. “If there's been an accident then the site leader explains what happened, why it happened, and how it will be prevented."
Second, Hellberg is known to stop production if he sees anything unsafe. He was recently in Hungary where a third-party supplier was installing an overhead crane. “They were lifting the new crane’s boom with a mobile crane, and wooden blocks had been inserted inside the band around the boom. There was a guy at each end to steady it. I stepped in and stopped it. If the boom had teetered, it would have fallen and seriously hurt one of those guys. People probably saw that it wasn’t safe, but thought it wasn’t their problem since it was a third-party supplier.”
Finally, Hellberg has insisted on uniform, cross-company safety standards in Fortaco factories. “We used to have differing standards by site and country. Some required hard hats, some didn’t. Over the years we’ve created one consistent standard in how we look at safety. This is to remove all excuses.”
One of those standards is that site leaders must alert Hellberg personally when there’s been an accident, which is always a difficult call for a Business Site Head to make. “If it’s a call they don’t want to make,” Hellberg reasons, “they’ll enforce safety procedures so that the call isn’t needed.”
The missing digit
Much like a Head of State visiting a hurricane disaster area, Hellberg frequently travels to factories after accidents. He asks questions and takes photos with his smart phone. And then he often shows his thumb.
In 2008, he and his son were using the bucket of a tractor to drive fence posts into the ground for a corral at his farm. They'd placed a wooden block between the post and the tractor bucket, which Hellberg held in place. But the block split when struck by the tractor. "A few tons of pressure is like a guillotine," he says. The top of his thumb was gone and was too mangled to sew back on. "I was wearing gloves but it didn't matter. I thought I was smart. I was more worried about getting the pole straight than I was my personal safety. Stupid me!”
Whether on the farm or factory floor, he says, “we’ve got to be prepared to say 'stop’. I ask 'Would I feel safe doing that job?' People say, 'Yeah, but we’re in a hurry.' I think that’s a bad excuse. The supervisor, the leader, has to change the mindset and behavior – a stop is more honorable than pushing deliveries and causing injuries.”
Zero accidents
Lost time injury frequency, LTIF, is the industry measure for accidents, with an accident defined as an injury that causes an employee to miss more than one full day of work. Currently, Fortaco’s accident rate is below the Finnish industry average but still not on par with the best customer performance figures.
Since Hellberg joined the company at the end of 2013, the rate of accidents is in decline, but he’s still not satisfied. Like Alcoa’s Paul O’Neill, he’s shooting for zero accidents. "You can say the group should have zero accidents. But it’s better to say each function should have zero, because ‘the group’ isn’t as relevant on the factory floor. To talk about your own functions makes it a personal engagement and you get buy-in.”
After telling his thumb story to a visiting journalist, Hellberg opens his phone to show photos. One image shows a massive welded structure a meter above ground, with staircases present at both ends. “We had a guy jump off this because he thought it would be faster. He could have used the stairs, but instead he tried to save maybe five seconds. He strained his ankle and was out of work a few days. The stupidity here actually belongs to his superior, for not making sure the guy was trained enough.”
The not-so-secret safety formula
Hellberg knows that he can tell his thumb story until he’s blue in the face, but unless safety is truly ingrained in Fortaco’s culture, zero accidents will never be achieved. He believes the secret is using teams to get there by changing habits.
“At Komatsu, in Japan, they have inspectors that roam the floors noting safety violations. The inspectors report what happened, but they never pinpoint the individual. The supervisor is forced to call the entire team together, to get them thinking to identify and solve the problem. Komatsu knows how to use the team to change habits.”
“Think about sports,” says Hellberg. “The team is a powerful, self-motivating unit. They don’t need the coach to make them feel bad when they lose.” Fortaco is doing the same: Let teams pursue the issue from the bottom up, and Hellberg go at it from the top down.
Hellberg will likely never stop roaming the floors calling attention to risky behavior. “I recently saw a guy moving cut steel with a bare hand. I stopped him and insisted he wear a glove. The explanation I got was that ‘He’s been doing it 30 years and knows what he’s doing.’” Hellberg shakes his head. “We’ve still got work to do.”