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Employee safety starts at the top

​"Where there is no vision, the people will perish," warns the adage.

Cities and towns are smart to heed this when it comes to workplace safety.

There is a direct correlation between leadership and safety performance in cities. Cities with leadership engagement from the top tend to have fewer employee injuries and losses, according to an analysis of the Municipal Association's Risk Management Services' member data. Through policies and procedures, accurate record keeping and cross training, staff are able reduce incident and injury rates.

"To maintain and sustain long-term loss reduction and decrease employee injury, there must be a commitment to a strong safety, health and wellness culture," said Venyke Harley, loss control manager for the Municipal Association's Risk Management Services. "This starts with an established vision and plan for safety."

The South Carolina Municipal Insurance Trust is a member-owned program formed by the Municipal Association in 1984 to provide workers' compensation benefits to city employees injured on the job. SCMIT has 119 cities in the program and has averaged one death per year since inception. (This number does not include the severe disabling injuries that prevent some employees from returning to work.)

Members of Risk Management Services' workers' compensation and property and liability programs issue an annual memo to employees with a safety policy statement. This memo is signed by administration and council stating their commitment to the prevention and control of losses.

"This may sound small, but it's a critical component of workplace safety because the commitment for safety must come from the top in order to get employees to buy in," said Harley.

Talk it up and often
Communication counts in risk management, Harley said.

"The most effective risk management programs encourage employee and resident participation and feedback. This ultimately results in large savings for the city," she said. "Great risk leaders also accept advice and don't wait until their city's claims experience causes significant increases in their premiums before making changes in the workplace. They demonstrate care and concern but also hold employees accountable for unsafe behaviors."

Beware of burnout
Committing the people, financing and resources to help employees do their jobs safely is critical.

"So instead of letting an unfilled position drop from the city's budget, understand the importance of hiring the right number of staff members so that other employees don't suffer burnout due to the burdens of understaffing," said Meredith Kaiser, loss control consultant for Risk Management Services. "Burnout can lead to injuries."

Know how things work
Taking the time to understand all of the activities in the city is crucial to workplace safety because it's easy to focus on just one area. For example, if the city manager was once a planning director, she may have a natural tendency to keep a closer eye on the planning activities in the city.

"For a comprehensive view of operations, leaders should force themselves out of their comfort zone to learn the risk and safety challenges that exist throughout the entire city," said Heather Ricard, director of the Municipal Association's Risk Management Services.

Having the mindset that injuries are merely an acceptable cost of doing business and that the city's insurance provider will take care of it hurts morale and employee performance and results in additional claims costs.

Devoted to safety
Depending on the size of the organization, it may be necessary to hire a risk/safety manager who can devote 100 percent of his time to the program. The Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities has decided to add a full-time risk manager position in its new budget, according to the department's manager, Warren Harley.

"Given the risk involved in the utility industry, it's imperative to have someone focused on this area at all times," he said.

Don't skimp on safety
During tight fiscal times, it's easy to cut training resources and funding for new equipment like personal protective equipment, but strong organizations make funding these items a priority.

"They understand that city employees at any moment can be literally placed in the line of fire as a police officer or called to respond to a fire as a firefighter," said Ricard.

"Also, always be cognizant of the perils that come along with the duties of utility and public works employees."

Incentivize
The City of Rock Hill has two safety committees and holds an annual safety banquet every January to recognize their city-wide efforts. All members of the city's leadership staff attend the luncheon, which draws more than 100 attendees.

Giving employees a tangible reward for promoting safety in the workplace — beyond simply the prospect of avoiding physical risks — can be an effective way to create a safety-focused culture.

"Rewarding employees for identifying hazards and working safely will keep employees engaged and allow them to see the city's investment in the program," said Kaiser.

"Safety is one of the city's core values and at the forefront of nearly all policy and budget decisions — from vehicle purchases to staff training to employee benefits," said Rock Hill City Manager David Vehaun.

"We try to ensure in every way possible that at the end of each day, city employees get home safe to their families."  

The City of Greer has a strategy of its own.

"Our safety incentive program has been very effective by allowing our employees to tangibly see how safe practices can affect their personal well-being and costs to the organization," said Ed Driggers, administrator for the City of Greer.

Annually, the city budgets for the full cost for workers' compensation insurance. Any savings to the city's coffers realized through safety performance is passed along on a shared basis to all employees and the taxpayers. Half of the savings is returned to the general fund of the city, and the other half is distributed among all employees. For the last 10 years, the city has hosted an annual safety and awareness breakfast, where employees have received bonus checks from $150 to $650 in a given year.

"All employees share equally in maintaining a safe work environment, and we share the rewards equally among all employees," said Driggers. "It's paramount that elected officials and administration support risk management within the organization and lead by example. If something is important, we have to demonstrate that it is important — not just talk about it."

Leadership steps to achieving and sustaining a safe workplace:

  • Establish a vision. Set goals and effectively communicate within the organization.
  • Own it. Take ownership of the safety culture and allow for assessment of the workplace through accident investigations and inspections.
  • Follow the rules. Risk leadership requires management to follow the rules and set clear expectations.
  • Hold staff accountable. Ask questions and know what's happening in the safety/risk management program.
  • Show up. Great risk leaders have a visible presence during safety trainings, luncheons and safety events.
  • Speak with one voice. Be the champion and communicate safety goals. Communicate the city's safety efforts, successes and improvement opportunities.
  • Allocate resources. People, tools, equipment and time are absolute necessities for safe work environments. Failing to fund these critical areas can cost the city money.