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How to Implement a Safety Management System


Change is always going to be painful, but the right approach can make all the difference.

Implementing a new safety management system (SMS) is no small task. Because safety is highly cross-functional, you will need buy-in and support from the full business, as well as dedicated time and resources to develop a plan. A good SMS can take months to develop, creating a huge loss when the plan just sits on the shelf.

Putting a new SMS in place and getting adoption does not have to be difficult. By approaching the new plan as a company-wide change management process, you can save time and effort, while ensuring that the most important aspects of the plan live on.

Safety Management Is Change Management

A safety system may seem like a plan that any organization can put in practice just by drafting one up. Many of the safety practices and procedures are already familiar to the team. So why does this approach to safety fail?

Safety management involves everyone on the team, and requires that individuals change their behaviors to prevent incidents. Changing behaviors is a complex challenge, and your organization should consider a change management approach to overcome this hurdle.

Change management requires that you consider the steps and deliverables needed to develop a high functioning program. As part of the plan, you will need to include communications strategies, accountability, risk planning, measurement, and transparency. The reward is a program that works.

Communicating the New Safety Plan

A large part of implementing a new safety management system is just getting the word out effectively. While key stakeholders will have insight into the planning process, the rest of the team will need clear, effective communications to get onboard.

The best way to detail your new plan is to keep it at the team level. Task supervisors, stakeholders, and other leaders with gathering up their team and sharing the new plan, and help them get it done by drafting great communications that they can use. Be transparent about the plan and show the entire team how they can be involved in creating a safe, efficient work environment.

Designing Accountability with Safety Leaders

While everyone in the organization is accountable for safety, responsibility ultimately falls to designated safety leaders. Leaders can be assigned or elected, but a clear system of accountability ensures that the safety management system stays effective.

These leaders are responsible for several tasks that usually fall out of their direct responsibilities. Safety leaders monitor the health of the program, identifying non-compliance or gaps. They run tests and drills to keep training fresh, and keep equipment like PPE, fire extinguishers, and emergency cut-offs in working order. This direct eye on the process builds long-term compliance.

Planning for Risk

Part of the challenge of implementing a new safety management program is tracking risk and performance. Risk is part of doing business, but the goal of safety is to understand these risks and set strategies in place to mitigate them.

Your new system should generate a risk management plan that profiles risks, mitigations, and metrics across every function. You will need to review risks across each department, ranking them by severity and impact. While the task can be huge, listing general and specific risks for each department shows you where to focus.

Measuring Change to Improve

Profiling risk only gets you halfway. You will also need to track key metrics to show continuous improvement, whether in reducing risks or cutting the number of safety incidents.

Some metrics can be measured often, by tracking days without incidents or by counting the number of unmitigated risks. Others will take time to profile, especially when measuring worker’s comp costs or production downtime. Tracking metrics and acting on results ensures that your costly new safety management system is active and responsive to change.

Enforcing Transparency

Safety management systems are not corporate policies that your team only sees when they mess up. Safety requires team buy-in and clear guidelines for what to expect and where to reduce risk.

Everyone on the team should have access to the details of the safety management system. Your team needs to see what policies are in place, where there are risks, and what role they play in the plan. Your team cannot be safe when they cannot see how to prevent incidents.

Implementing a new safety management system is a challenge that any organization can overcome. By implementing a change management strategy that accounts for risk, transparency, and responsibility, your new safety management plan will be successful for years to come.

Making the Business Case

Effective safety management systems (SMS) have been found to lower insurance and operational costs, make more effective use of investments and increase employee morale.

These are benefits that can be realized by any company, regardless of its size. Implementing a strong SMS should be a compelling part of doing business.

Here's how to make the business case for a SMS at your company:

Fewer Incidents, Happier Employees

Incidents on site are bad for everyone. As the National Safety Council (NSC) noted in a recent white paper, when an incident happens, the injured employee suffers, morale takes a hit and the company incurs costs for lost production and workman’s compensation.

A SMS can work to avoid these consequences by preventing the incidents that cause them. While no system can comprehensively prevent every incident, most can account for the leading causes of incidents.

Incidents and production delays can demoralize workers and create a culture of unsafe behavior. In smaller businesses, as the NSC notes, even a single incident involving one employee can slow or stop operations, challenging everyone else to fill in gaps.

Workers are satisfied when they can do their job safely and rely on their team, making a strong SMS an important part of your workplace culture.

More Productive Operations

Productivity is an indicator of how well an organization meets its goals. Incidents slow or stop production, taking important employees and financial targets with them.

In a survey of Chief Financial Officers, the NSC found that 40% said productivity was the greatest benefit of an effective workplace safety program. When a company can deliver on safety – and deliver reliably – it is more healthy and robust. An effective SMS strives to increase productivity by preventing the most common causes of downtime and harm to employees.

Less Risk and Insurance Payout

Implementing a SMS does not just prevent individual incidents but costs associated with an incident. Drawing on research from OSHA, the NCS white paper noted that preventing each lost time injury or illness saves a company $37,000, a significant sum for any business. The most unfortunate incident, a workplace fatality, can cost nearly $1.4 million on average, the white paper found.

While lost productivity can often be recovered, a costly insurance payout can affect a company for years. With a SMS in place that works to prevent common incidents, your workplace is more likely to avoid the types of injuries that require compensation.

Fewer Fines and Lost Investors

A SMS can also result in fewer fines and more interested investors. The NSC white paper found that some investors are already screening target companies by looking at their workplace safety and health measures. They can screen out potentially underperforming investments by assessing safety incidents and the company’s likely returns.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has long levied fines on companies for safety violations. Now those fines will be much more costly. In 2015, Congress mandated that federal agencies revise their fines for inflation on an annual basis, and OSHA's maximum penalties, which had last been increased in 1990, are now 81% higher in 2017. State run OSHA plan states must at a minimum adopt the new federal annual maximum penalty levels. Under the new rates, which took effect January 13 of 2017 , the maximum penalty for a serious or other-than-serious violation is $12,675 per violation, for failure to abate $12,675 per day beyond the abatement date, and for willful or repeated violation is now $126,749 per violation.

Implementing a SMS is the right choice to boost employee satisfaction and morale, save money across the company and build public trust.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.