At 4:00 a.m., before the late autumn sun crests over Richards Spur Quarry, Ryan Palmer’s crew of about 20 drivers, operators and helpers are on site ready to begin a 12-hour shift. Their muscles are still stiff from the previous days’ work, their eyes still glazed with sleepiness, but Palmer is counting on their minds to be fresh and agile for a Catwalk Conversation.
The topic is fall protection and Palmer, the lead man, has a page of information to cover with his crew, but he rarely looks at it. He doesn’t need to.
“I have it there to make sure we’ve covered the topic, but I prefer a question and answer type meeting, where I try to find out what they know, what questions they have and get ideas for improvement,” Palmer said. “Most of the time the issues they bring up go way more in depth than the sheet, anyway.”
One of the questions posed from an hourly employee today is, “Do we have a plan for rescuing someone once they’ve fallen and are hanging from the harness?”
The answer is no, but the question is an encouraging indicator that employee engagement in safety is on the rise at Richards Spur. The transition from a passive to an active safety culture is driven by a continuous improvement journey that started in late 2013, facilitated by Caterpillar Safety Services.
This year Palmer and a group of nine other hourly employees (Continuous Improvement [CI] Team 1) built a new safety meeting system. Frequent, brief Catwalk Conversations have replaced hour-long monthly meetings that were dubbed “boring” and “pointless” by employees throughout Dolese’s ranks. Now safety meetings about job-specific hazards are daily conversations, some formal, but most informal, and typically last no more than 15 minutes.
The new open-dialog format encourages input from everyone and inspires outside-the-box thinking. It also makes safety a continuous topic of conversation throughout the day. The new system calls for supervisors or designated meeting leaders to conduct at least two Catwalk Conversations with every employee each week, but many of them are having far more than the requirement.
“I have about 20 safety meetings a day, if I really think about it,” said Bryce Coffman, Superintendent at Richards Spur. “This system is about getting out to have short conversations, and I’m finding that when I drive around each day there are less and less reasons to get out and prevent something. Instead, I get out and say, ‘Hey, guys, how’s everything going? I appreciate the way you did that,’ because I’ve noticed them doing something safely.”
The safe actions Coffman is finding are likely the result of earlier Catwalk Conversations or job hazard discussions that brought risky plans to light.
“By asking ‘How would you do this?’ before starting a job, we find out if they were planning on taking a shortcut and can correct problems before they even get to work,” Palmer said.
Palmer’s cohorts from CI Team 1 represent other Dolese plants and are serving as advocates for the new process in their areas.
“The CI Team members are seen as leaders in their areas,” said Gaylan Towle, Safety Director. “They’re trusted by their co-workers, so they’re playing an important role in conveying management’s commitment to safety engagement as well as being experts in the new process.”
David Finley, a Safety Specialist, arrived at Richards Spur shortly after the Catwalk Conversation about fall protection and quickly learns he’ll be leaving with an action item: create, document and train employees on a fall rescue plan. He is enthusiastic about personally following up on a safety request from the front line and recognizes it’s an opportunity for the safety department to demonstrate its own transformation.
“We want to be a resource to help employees be safer, not just problem-finders,” Finley said. “This is a great idea that won’t just help Richards Spur, but every quarry.”
The new meeting system and cultural movement are changing the way Finley and the safety department are perceived by the production workforce.
“It used to be we hated to see Safety come out on site, because they were just here to get us in trouble or point out stuff that didn’t even seem relevant to safety,” Palmer said. “Getting to know the safety guys has helped my mindset become safer and that’s helping out here because my guys trust me and follow my lead.”
Richards Spur is Dolese’s largest, busiest quarry and the 84 employees on site work dangerous jobs every day. The growing culture of self-management and problem solving has reduced pressure on site supervision to provide instruction for every hazardous circumstance.
“Across all areas of our business, the greatest change I’ve seen in recent years is the push to encourage the hourly workforce to make decisions on their own and understand that their input is valuable,” Coffman said. “That is management’s goal, which I share, and it’s my role to make believers out of these guys out here.”
Shortly after 8:00 a.m. two hourly employees approached Coffman and Finley to greet them and discuss the day’s agenda. In seconds, the exchange became a safety conversation.
“These guys approached Bryce without fear and had a true two-way conversation with him, offering information and ideas, not just waiting for him to give instructions,” Finley noted. “That’s what we want to see happening everywhere, in every conversation between supervisors and hourly employees - dialog, not dictatorship.”
Inside the warehouse, Joe Self, Assistant Superintendent, is leading a Catwalk Conversation about fire extinguisher safety with two employees. One of them is Ed Ponce, a member of Dolese’s Safety Steering Team, which looked at safety culture perception data earlier this year and determined Catwalk Conversations would be a good first improvement project.
“We’re seeing safety conversations roll into production conversations and vice versa, which is a really good sign of increased awareness about safety,” Ponce said. “And I think the new format is giving people who were reluctant to speak up at the old monthly meetings many more chances to share input.”
Leaving Richards Spur, Finley recalls the way he felt last year at this time, as the journey to safety excellence was just beginning. He was a relatively new addition to the safety department, but had been around long enough to understand that Dolese employees were traditionally ingrained to be “good soldiers,” not free thinkers.
“Honestly, I’m shocked, in a good way, about what we’ve accomplished in just one year,” Finley said. His dad, Dave, a batch plant mechanic in Oklahoma City, represents a major Dolese demographic—long-time employees accustomed to a more authoritarian work environment.
“When we started, our culture was so far from what we wanted that I was doubtful we would see change quickly, or even at all,” Finley said. “I thought, ‘How are we going to make hundreds of people just like my dad change the way they’ve been operating for decades?’ So it’s incredible to see this change taking hold.”
A second CI Team will meet in January to create another proactive safety process. The team will follow the same procedures as CI Team 1 to build an accountability system that includes training, measurement and recognition for good performance.
Palmer, who went from skeptic to champion with his experience on CI Team 1, hopes the members of CI Team 2 will embrace the opportunity to create positive change for their peers.
“When they see another guy from their plant helping to come up with the new process, it helps them get on board because it shows that management is taking our opinions seriously,” Palmer said. “I hope that will happen everywhere as more people get involved with the teams and take the word back to their plants.”