Safety Spotlight: Answering the Call

Dec 11, 2018, 21:24 PM
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November/December 2018

By Amanda Abrams

Answering-The-CallSo you’ve decided to add a safety manager to your scrap company. Maybe the company is growing, and part-time efforts from busy owners and managers aren’t cutting it anymore. Or perhaps the industry’s pro-safety message has finally gotten through, and the owners have realized the company needs to make safety more of a priority. Whatever the reason, it’s time to find someone who can serve as safety manager on site or overseeing several yards.

That’s a great decision, says David Borsuk, a senior adviser with Sadoff Iron & Metal Co. (Fond du Lac, Wis.) and chair of ISRI’s Safety and Environmental Council. “A safety manager can give an added dimension to a company by being able to commit full time to implementing and carrying out a safety program,” he says.

But how do you get started? You could promote someone from within the company who knows the business but is a safety newbie, or you could advertise and find a safety professional who can then learn the scrap recycling business. And once you fill the position, how do new safety managers learn the details they need to master to do their job well? Existing scrap safety professionals, supervisors, and safety experts gave Scrap their insights on how to find and cultivate the expertise needed to succeed in scrap safety management.

The inside and outside paths

Company size often determines whether a company promotes someone to safety manager from within or hires from outside the company, these safety managers say. “Smaller companies tend not to need a full-time person” initially, says Bill Rouse, the quality, environment, health, and safety manager at PK Metals (Coram, N.Y.). “They tend to promote someone [to lead safety] who can do multiple roles. Then they grow out of that and need a full-time person, and the employee then fills that role.” If the firm continues to grow, its managers may then choose to hire a safety professional from outside the circle of current staff.

Rouse is a fan of tapping an existing employee to lead safety at companies of any size, if the right person exists. “If you’re promoted from within, [management] obviously sees something in you and will trust more your decisionmaking,” he says. That’s how he ended up in his position. About 20 years ago, PK Metals’ owners promoted him from production manager/export sales to also manage environment, health, and safety. “I held all three positions until the company grew and management responsibilities were reallocated and more defined,” he says. Because the owners knew his capabilities and trusted him, they gave him more leeway than they might have with an outside person, he says. “Safety professionals [from outside the industry] probably take longer to earn that trust, versus others who’ve [already] proved themselves,” he suggests. “Someone who’s green, who doesn’t know about recycling—doesn’t know the baler, shear, excavator—needs to learn before they become an authority.”

Tamara Deiro, director of safety at SA Recycling (Orange, Calif.), also favors that approach. SA tries to hire safety managers from within, and that’s how she wound up in her current position: She started out as a metals buyer whom SA eventually picked to lead the safety program. That’s now her primary method for filling positions at SA’s 77 yards across the country. “We talk to general managers, find out if there’s anyone who could fill that position, someone who we could groom to get them up to speed,” she says.

Deiro and her staff look for self-motivated employees with a good work ethic who don’t need hand-holding. And above all, she adds, they have to have enthusiasm. “Some of the most recent people that we’ve taken on are very passionate about what they’re doing; they have a lot of energy for the program. To be in this position, they have to care about the employee.” After all, she says, the job is about protecting and training other employees; without compassion and understanding for fellow workers, an EHS manager won’t thrive. Only after they have exhausted their efforts to find an internal candidate will they turn to an outside hire, she says.

ISRI’s safety outreach manager, Tony Smith, says many safety managers he has met in the scrap industry were promoted to their jobs from within the company. It may be that scrap company owners are more comfortable with that method, he says.

Andy Knudsen sees merit in both approaches, however. Knudsen, general manager of Zero Accident Consulting (Libertyville, Ill.), says his firm has made approximately 3,000 safety-related visits to scrap facilities in the last five years on behalf of large insurance carriers and has worked with many safety managers. “There are some extraordinarily qualified safety professionals who come up through the ranks,” he says. But, as Deiro points out, they need to have the right mindset and capabilities. Employees who can do the job well have to be tough enough to stand up to ownership when safety is at stake, even if it might cost the company money—for example, when the facility needs to stop production due to a safety issue. And they must be conscientious: organized, paying attention to detail, and taking time to learn from mistakes. “After an analysis, some people dust themselves off and carry on,” Knudsen says. “Others will stop and say, ‘Wow, that was bad, but it could’ve been worse; how can we prevent it from happening ever again?’” The latter are the folks scrapyard managers will want in a safety position, he says.

On the other hand, longtime employees can lack objectivity about existing scrapyard practices and can become complacent, he says. That’s where outside professionals often have an upper hand. “They’ll take a fresh look at the business without any [preconceived ideas] about how things have been done before or what can or can’t be done,” Knudsen points out. “They will say, ‘Why the heck are you doing this?’ And the answer is usually, ‘because we’ve always done it that way.’”

Jerry Sjogren, who had a safety background when E.L. Harvey & Sons (Westborough, Mass.) hired him 27 years ago, agrees that EHS managers promoted from within may struggle to break with the past and fully inhabit their new roles. “It can be very difficult to transition from worker to manager because former co-workers can get a little ‘excited’ that ‘this person was working next to me, and now I have to do what he’s telling me,’” he explains. “It’s a decision you have to make: If you’re taking on that position, you need to put on a different hat and decide that you’re serving the best interests of your company. You might have to make unpopular decisions.”

What’s most important in a new safety manager, Borsuk says, is not the person’s experience to date. “It has to do with being dedicated to self-improvement as well as to improvement in the organization,” he says. “You can find people with those attributes, whether they had no background [in safety] internally, or were professionally trained on the outside. … It’s not where they started, but where they are now.”


Getting up to speed

Once a new safety manager is on board, whether that person has moved up through the ranks or been hired from outside, he or she has a massive amount of information to learn to be effective. Some are fortunate enough to follow in the footsteps of previous EHS managers, but many are learning on the job and carving out its requirements as they go. Luckily, the information is easily available, and much of it is free, these safety managers say.

“First you have to decipher what’s truly relevant and what’s not,” says Lisa Dunn, EHS manager at Becker Iron & Metal (Venice, Ill.). Formerly a cashier at the scrapyard, Dunn says that after Becker’s owners promoted her to focus on safety, she largely taught herself the job, with one owner’s help. “I was pretty self-motivated. I went through tons of videos and articles,” she says, some of which the company’s insurance carrier provided. She also took some safety courses at her local community college.

Dunn adds that she spent time reading OSHA regulations and examining the citations the agency had given to other companies in the scrap industry to get a sense of what her firm needed to watch out for. “You have to know your OSHA,” she says. And she made use of the free OSHA Consultation Program, which other safety managers also highlight as particularly useful. In the program, companies invite OSHA inspectors to conduct an audit and explain what the company is doing incorrectly or needs to improve. So long as the company remedies the problems, the findings will not result in a citation. (For more on Becker Iron’s OSHA experience, read “What We Didn’t Know About Safety” in the November/December 2017 issue of Scrap.) “It absolutely helped; I highly recommend it,” Dunn says. And many of those OSHA consultants who worked with the company have remained useful contacts. “They’ve been a great resource for me that I can call up and ask questions of or get suggestions from.”

Just about every safety manager interviewed for this article has also emphasized the usefulness of ISRI’s information. “ISRI has a tremendous amount of resources—materials, programs, trainings, certifications,” Knudsen says. As a new safety manager, “that’s where your time would be best spent, learning from industry research.”

ISRI safety resources include the Safety Blueprint program, an on-site evaluation that allows managers to assess their facility’s safety culture and commitment; the Circle of Safety Excellence™, a voluntary program in which companies share safety data and best practices; the weekly EHS Update e-newsletter; and extensive training materials and other guidance in the safety section of the ISRI website, In 2019, ISRI plans to launch its Safety College, an online training program aimed specifically at employees who are new to their jobs as safety managers, regardless of their background. It’ll be a 12-section course, sort of a Safety 101, Smith says. “For those who are educated [in safety], this’ll help them get up to speed with the [scrap] industry and its different nuances,” he explains. And for those who’ve been promoted from within, who don’t have a formal safety education, it will give them the lay of the land: understanding OSHA and the whole regulatory scheme, injury recordkeeping requirements, near-miss reporting, personal protective equipment, fire hazards, mobile equipment safety, and more.

The ISRI resource for new managers that these safety professionals mention most frequently, however, is ISEC. ISEC’s two meetings each year are two-and-a-half-day training programs featuring presentations by ISRI staff and ISEC members and wide-ranging group discussions on subjects the members have suggested. Follow-up conversations are encouraged over e-mail and phone, and those are some of the most fruitful opportunities for new safety managers to learn from those with more experience, ISEC participants say.

“You’ll get folks who are brand new and others who’ve been in [the industry] for 20 years,” says Rouse, who served as ISEC chair for two years. “It’s a network I could bounce questions off of, learning from others with similar jobs. We work in different parts of the country, so there’s no competitive interest; we’re just sharing safety data and solutions.”

Sjogren, another former ISEC chair, also puts a premium on participation in ISEC and other groups where professionals can share ideas, solutions, and best practices. E.L. Harvey & Sons has encouraged him to join local and national trade associations, safety councils, and emergency committees—all of which expand his network and ability to learn from others, he says. Some of the benefits are very specific: By attending all of these meetings, Sjogren says he hears about new or changing regulations and can quickly get a sense of which will be the most onerous, for example. But usually, the benefits are more general. “It’s like anything: You have a problem and know people you trust; you can send an e-mail or pick up the phone and ask, ‘Have you heard of anything like this?’” he says. “Typically people will come back and say, ‘Yeah.’ You can’t put a value on that.”


Learning the soft skills

Troubleshooting and technical skills are only part of the picture, however. Safety managers could cite the OSHA regulations from memory and know every hazard in their facility and how the company has addressed it, but without one skill, they probably won’t succeed. That skill is interpersonal relations. A scrapyard’s employees make the facility run smoothly and safely—or not. A good safety manager needs trust, respect, and buy-in from all of the company’s employees, as well as its management. Otherwise, the employees will have no incentive to follow the rules and take safety seriously.

“In my opinion, that’s the art of being an effective safety manager: being able to speak with the management, whether C-level or operations management, but also being able to get your information across to the working folks out in the field,” Smith says. “It’s such a difficult walk to figure that out. If you can, you’re worth your weight in gold.”

Ownership buy-in is essential for the success of any safety program. A safety manager can often bring the owners around to the importance of investing in safety when the number of accidents decreases and insurance rates fall. But winning over employees can be more challenging. While some EHS managers, whether promoted from within or hired from the outside, might have strong people skills and naturally command respect, not all do.

Safety managers can learn some of those soft skills. ISRI’s Safety College will include a section on leadership and how to effectively communicate a safety message to employees, management, and ownership, Smith says. Other types of training, like a Dale Carnegie–style class focusing on working well with co-workers, or others on how to deal with difficult people, could help as well. But most managers will gain those skills simply through practice.

“It’s really all about engaging the employees,” says Ryan Burke, the safety manager at Pacific Steel & Recycling (Great Falls, Mt.). “Safety employees need to be working with their people and know what’s really going on—every hour, every shift, every week. Boots on the ground. More importantly, [they must] listen to what [employees] need help with and what’s going on.”

Burke says he and Pacific’s regional safety specialists continually visit all of Pacific’s 42 locations in the United States and Canada to get a close sense of the facilities’ workers, roles, and concerns. They ask employees about their work, go for ride-alongs with drivers, and help operate their equipment. If employees see that the safety team is listening and cares, they’ll be more likely to feel like partners in the process—to trust them, hear what they have to say, and be engaged, he says.

Dunn agrees that listening and encouraging a two-way conversation are essential if employees are to feel like valued partners in a safety program. She says she and Becker’s owners have established a more collaborative safety effort: The owners have an open-door policy and workers feel free to talk about issues in the yard without fearing repercussions.

“I relied a lot on [workers’] input,” she says of her early days on the job. “With me coming in as a newbie—and, frankly, as a woman—it would’ve been very easy for me to write policy and say, ‘Do it this way,’ when in reality, that might not have been the safest way.” That input helped strengthen safety at the facility, she adds, while also softening any resistance to her as the “safety police.”

Forming a good working relationship early on is critical: Safety policies and procedures will succeed or fail due to workers’ actions. Still, it takes time to establish real trust and to reassure employees that they won’t get in trouble for reporting something that needs to be fixed. “Some of their trust in me grew as I became more knowledgeable,” Dunn says of Becker Iron’s employees. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, no one will listen to you. But as I proved myself, it became easier.”

Before coming to Becker Iron, Dunn taught school to at-risk children, and she thinks that the experience probably informed her work with independent-minded scrapyard employees. “Personal skills are the hardest” to learn, she says. “You can take all the classes in the world, but you either get it or you don’t.”

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.

Whether promoted from within or hired from outside, new safety managers face a steep learning curve. Even after they master the essential knowledge, their leadership skills will determine their success.
  • 2018
  • Nov_Dec

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