How does a company change an institutional culture for better safety results? The answer lies in both “top down” and “bottom up” changes in behavior. One is reminded of the U.S. Navy's legendary John Paul Jones, who advised his officers, “Loyalty downward begets loyalty upward.”
“Management commitment begins at the top,” says Kevin Connors, CTP, Senior Director of Safety, ConAgra Foods, Omaha, NE. “We witnessed a sea change five years ago. They “get it” when it comes to safety. They have set high targets across the board in becoming a world-class safety performer. Employee safety and product quality are equally ranked as the number-one priorities at the company. Our slogan, ‘Safety Trumps Everything’, has practical and substantive consequences for what we are expected to do everyday.”
“Right off the bat, standards were raised,” Connors says. “Before, we thought we were doing a pretty good safety job, [but] in reality we had picked low hanging fruit. Higher standards meant walking a steeper grade to bigger expectations.” For example, the minimum age for drivers was raised to 23 and a candidate could have no more than two moving violations within three years and no DWI charges.
Another major change involved screening for drugs. "We previously tested driver candidates using urine samples, which usually yielded 1% to 2% positive tests per group of prospects," Connors notes. "We added hair follicle testing with dramatic results. Positive test rates shot up to 11.4% and would have been higher but for dropouts.”
“A drug-user walking in the door as a new employee represents an additional $10,000 cost to your workforce,” says Connors. “We realized an immediate $1.6-million savings by switching to the hair follicle test and a potential savings of $13 million in “avoided” costs of accidents and injuries annually. In the process, we have over time raised the overall quality of the driver pool.”
The fleet also upgraded equipment and technology. By switching from owned to leased equipment, ConAgra was able to run more state-of-the-industry trucks with features drivers prefer and current technology that the company needs. “We found there were hidden costs to the truck when it's not upgraded, as well as increased downtime.”
Management attitudes about safety and workers changed at every level. “We took ownership responsibility for making drivers aware of unsafe behavior. We now expect bad behavior — rolling through stop signs, following vehicles too closely, exceeding speed limits — to be stopped in its tracks,” Connors says.
“We ask more of our drivers, provide a favorable work environment and treat them in a very professional manner in all circumstances,” he says. “But we are hard and fast in administrating the rules when broken. For example, drivers know that not wearing a seatbelt earns a three-day suspension from work — without pay.”
Another major change was the appointment of a senior-level director of safety covering the entire company from manufacturing to warehousing and distribution. “We now have the essential focus,” says Connors. “The company also has metrics in place to measure its return on investment in safety. Connors says it took about two years to realize consistent ROI gains at ConAgra once the new standards were in place, but the long-term returns have been impressive.
Gary Petty is President and CEO of the National Private Truck Council.The council's web site is www.nptc.org. His column appears monthly in FLEET OWNER.