Leading Organizational Change with Safety


by Joseph P. Wheatley, Vice President of Environmental, Health & Safety (EHS), EnPro Industries

Organizational change is often driven by the desire to optimize operations or increase revenues, which are good for business and sustaining employment. However, there is another even more compelling agent for change in the workplace.

The good news is that workplace injuries and fatalities have been trending downward for the past decade. The bad news is that they are not coming down fast enough for a company where safety is not just a top priority, but a core value along with excellence and respect, and whose stated purpose is to “enable the full release of human possibility.” Safety is first because without it excellence is unattainable, and concern for one’s fellow employees is the highest form of respect for them. Moreover, it is impossible for someone to realize his/her fullest potential when sidelined due to injury, or worse, a life-altering disability.

Imagine working for a company where every employee makes both a personal and public commitment to safety by signing a pledge: “I pledge to personally be involved to create an injury-free workplace. My dedication to creating a safe workplace free of all injuries will be absolute and clear through my actions.”

This is my company, EnPro Industries Inc., a diversified manufacturer of proprietary engineered products for critical applications, providing sealing technologies, bearings, compressor components, engines and other solutions for industries worldwide. Having been spun off by our parent company, Goodrich Corp., in 2002 gave us an opportunity to start anew and do safety right.

Since then, EnPro has undergone an organizational transformation into a dual bottom-line company that places equal emphasis on financial performance and employee development. This initiative reflects the commitment of our leadership to create an environment that fosters employee empowerment and encourages the sharing of knowledge and skills.

As part of this transformation, the company has developed a safety plan and implemented a system that works so well that other companies have requested it.

Three times named one of America’s Safest Companies by EHS Today, EnPro has developed a gamut of best practices, tested in its heavy manufacturing facilities, to move an organization toward zero injuries. Our safety coaches have helped more than 100 large and small companies implement an effective safety system. Starting with an assessment of a firm’s current system, we tailor each implementation plan to the individual organization, building on the existing culture and system. We seek opportunities to achieve business value from the safety system, including cost savings and avoidance, increased efficiency and reliability, less duplication and conflict, better communications and a more robust safety culture. The 12-stage process takes 2 years to complete, including auditing and sustainability.

The EnPro system is based on the fundamental principle that one injury is one too many. The company’s SafetyFirst behavior based safety program helps identify specific opportunities to be safer, relying on employees’ awareness and helping one another put safety first. The program promotes four general behaviors: working at a safe pace; remaining focused; controlling emotions; and preparing for the task at hand. Four key triggers help employees focus on the most common work- and home-related injuries: lacerations/cuts, sprains/strains, slips/trips/falls and injuries due to unfamiliarity with new tasks/jobs.

Four mnemonic phrases help keep these triggers front of mind:

• “Don’t feel the steel” to encourage wearing safety gloves;

• “Don’t feel stiff when you lift”;

• “If you don’t grip you could slip”;

• “If you do something new, make sure to review.”

Recognizing the difficulty of changing employees’ behavior, the goal is instead to instill safety habits. The nature of the company’s operations poses numerous risks for injury, and each business unit has been asked to identify and increase awareness of the risk specific to its facilities. We do this by coining these slogans, rather than enjoining employees to “be careful,” a nonspecific and ultimately ineffective way to encourage safe behaviors.

Employees participate in active sessions to make them more aware of hazards in the workplace, at home and on the road. They learn from each other and the safety challenges they face every day.

Another important foundation of the system are action-based safety teams that promote shared responsibility rather than relying on the efforts of a single safety committee.

Safety Action Teams focus on education and training, health and environment, incident investigation, housekeeping, fire and emergency, inspection and audits, rules and procedures, and other safety activities. These activities typically include kick-off and mid-year follow-up of safety events, organizing employee recognition systems to reward proactive safety efforts, and conducting incident investigations focusing on near-hits and first-aid cases.

In some plants, every employee serves on a safety-related team or committee, driving engagement, shared responsibility and a more proactive approach to safety. This approach also promotes a sense of ownership of the issue, since people tend to support things they help create. Also fundamental to a culture of safety is the commitment of senior management, because corporate culture is essentially a top-down proposition until it is fully embraced throughout an organization. As such, it provides the opportunity to use safety to lead organizational change by setting goals and metrics for achieving them, including 24-hour reporting of near-hits and safety opportunities, lost time, medical treatment and first aid. If it cannot be measured it cannot be managed.

Therefore, management must be just as accountable with regard to achieving safety goals as it is for operational and financial targets. Likewise a recognition/incentive program underscores the importance of safety, rewards those who engage in and promote it both at work and at home, and encourages others to do the same.

Individual employees are recognized for taking specific actions to avert injuries, versus the rather impersonal recognition of a plant’s safety performance. The safety recognition hierarchy depicts the evolution of best practices from the plant, up through the departmental and team levels to the individual employee.

At the plant level, recognition is reactive, focusing on lost time and medical treatment cases. At the departmental and team levels, it is transitional, emphasizing first-aid administrations and near-hit corrections. At the desired individual level, recognition reflects predictive actions, including committee participation, training/auditing and identifying safety opportunities.

EnPro is implementing an integrated safety plan that contemplates how to achieve organizational change. Among the tools and practices employed are safety leadership training, behavior-based employee training, formalized safety procedures, a committee-based safety system, safety best practices, communications centers, stand-downs and hot-seat calls. In addition, all employees are asked to sign the safety pledge, conduct annual family safety days and implement an employee-driven OSH organizational model that promotes shared responsibility for safety. Regional and rotational OSH personnel develop, orchestrate and coordinate safety activities. The model frees them from the day-to-day “tyranny of the urgent” to address larger issues and do more meaningful, nonactivity-based work on emerging programs.

Integral Approach

The challenge is how to implement a safety system that works. For a guide, the company referred to Wilber’s (2003) Integral Theory: The word integral means comprehensive, inclusive, nonmarginalizing and embracing. Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that: to include as many perspectives, styles and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are “meta-paradigms,” or ways to draw together an already existing number of paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching.

Wilber’s theory incorporates cultural studies, anthropology, systems theory, psychology, biology and spirituality. It has been applied in fields as diverse as education, business, medicine, politics, sports and art. EnPro has adapted this approach in establishing its safety culture.

The four quadrants of the organizational model how both the internal and external factors of the individual and community aspects of an organization. In this approach the upper-left, individual quadrant refers to intentional factors, including executive management commitment, SafetyMyVoice and leadership training. The upper-right, individual quadrant refers to behavioral factors such as safety first, recognition/incentives and management accountability. The lower-left, community quadrant refers to cultural factors, including kick-off/safety days, safety pledge, near-hit/safety opportunities, committee-based safety and organizational model. The lower-right, community quadrant refers to systems factors, including formalized procedures, care management, committee-based safety, safety communications center, metrics/goals/results and organizational model.

The interrelationship between and among these quadrants gives the safety culture the dynamism that could not have been achieved by any one of them alone. Rules and regulations without commitment take a company only so far in the quest for world-class safety performance, which requires a deeply held personal belief in the value of people. Igniting and nurturing that commitment calls for effective safety leadership. In establishing this culture of safety, we realized that internally driven leadership and public affirmation of employees’ commitment to safety would be critical to its success. We believe there is a hierarchy of safety leadership, at the top of which are the visionaries, those who want to know more and are motivated to innovate and serve others.

Below visionaries are champions or advocates whose own strong safety ethic compels them to lead, serving as models for a corporate ethic and motivating others. Under the champions are supporters who understand the importance of safety and believe in investing time and resources. Anchoring the hierarchy is compliance, or those who meet the minimal requirements of their employer or regulatory agencies such as OSHA.

While the company had numerous safety champions, we knew we had to become visionaries to establish a sustainable safety culture. We also knew that it would require deep insight into human behavior to understand what drives people to put themselves at risk. The cultural and behavioral aspects of safety have proved to be the most difficult.

Behavioral Factors

Most safety systems do not address safety awareness and self-development, the “soft stuff” that drives superior results. In The Fifth Discipline, Senge (2010) writes:

“One thing all managers know is that many of the best ideas never get put into practice. Brilliant strategies fail to get translated into action. Systemic insights never find their way into operating policies. A pilot experiment may probe to everyone’s satisfaction that a new approach leads to better results, but widespread adoption of the approach never occurs.”

The better idea often never gets implemented because “new insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting,” according to Senge (2010). Only effective leadership can prevail over such stymied mental models and organizational inertia. In developing this leadership, we had to define what makes good leaders.

In The Leadership Challenge, authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner identify five practices of exemplary leadership. These include treating people respectfully and setting goals for them, inspiring them by believing they can make a difference, challenging the status quo, fostering collaboration and team spirit, and providing the encouragement to accomplish extraordinary things. Research suggests that leadership qualities are approximately one-third innate and two-thirds developed. In the author’s experience, the same holds true of safety leaders whose natural concern for others tends to make them successful wherever they are, regardless of industry, location, position, facility or union/nonunion status.


An exercise called SafetyMyVoice is a public demonstration of one’s fundamental feelings about safety. Rules can get you only so far, so we spend what some might consider an inordinate amount of time talking about ourselves and our own unique perspectives on safety. This is a critical process of self-development on which most companies do not spend enough time.

Because authenticity of expression can be a challenge, SafetyMyVoice gets better the more it is practiced. The power of the exercise derives from the personal connections between and among those candidly discussing their feelings about safety.

These feelings are often colored by their own experiences with fellow employees, family and others. The more thoughts about safety are discussed, the more developed they become, helping participants evolve to higher levels in the leadership hierarchy.

Employees are asked to set their own commitment level within this hierarchy, with compliance accepting that safety is just as important as quality and production; supporters believing it is even more important than quality and production; champions dedicated to and personally involved in creating an injury-free workplace; and visionaries striving to create the world’s safest workplace.

Discussion is the most effective way to accelerate safety awareness and commitment, so we practice SafetyMyVoice on a regular basis.

To facilitate this process, employees are asked to answer four sets of questions:

  1. Was there a time when safety was not important to you? What did you look like to an outside observer? Were there direct consequences of your belief?

  2. Who do you treasure most in this world? Have you ever put them in danger? Have you ever helped them heal?
  3. Have you ever engaged in an unsafe act? What did that act look like? Large or small, what were the consequences?
  4. When did you begin to believe that safety is the ultimate priority? How would an outside observer know your belief? Have there been any direct consequences of your new belief?

There are no wrong answers to these questions, as long as one is speaking from the heart. The only rules with regard to SafetyMyVoice are that speakers share personal stories and that they use “I” statements to keep them personal. Employees are encouraged to use this practice often to continually remind colleagues of their dedication to safety. In addition, employees are encouraged to regularly inspect and challenge their mental models about safety, including the degree of risk they are willing to take themselves and for others.

Injury of a fellow employee must be deemed unacceptable even if your company’s safety performance is better than industry average. When aiming at superior safety, leaders must demonstrate a deep caring and love for their colleagues. If leadership’s goal is to improve safety or to come in below a certain safety rate, the message is much different than achieving perfection in safety. Changing an organization is difficult using just performance metrics (e.g., increasing sales, improving on-time delivery). However, change can be effected by demonstrating an immutable value, such as deep caring for each employee, rather than a priority that can change.

For example, EnPro acquired a brake manufacturing business in Georgia that had a lamentable record of one in three employees requiring medical treatment for a work-related injury every year. There was no deep concern for the employees manufacturing these brakes, nor did anyone consider this a problem. On the first day of ownership, EnPro shut down the plant’s largest press due to safety concerns and never put it back into operation.

This action essentially halted the operation in the ensuing months until safer ways to produce the brakes were developed. This sent a message to the entire organization that employees come first and nothing is more important than the welfare of each individual. Today, that operation has one or two medical treatment cases per 100 employees. While still not perfect, the organizational change has been remarkable. There is now a sense of deep caring for one another, and near-hits and safety opportunities are valued as protection against workplace injuries or worse. These are some ways to effect organizational change with visionary leadership that constantly seeks to take safety to the next level and challenges what is acceptable.

This article was printed in Professional Safety, Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers, August 2015


Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Senge, P.M. (2010). The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group. Wilber, K. (2003). Foreword.
F. Visser (Ed.), Thought as passion (pp. xii-xiii). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Tags: organizational change , leadership , organization safety ,

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