When politicians and regulators dictate the structure of our safety programs, says CEO Brian Fielkow, there is a 'low probability that desirable safety outcomes will result.'

Trump's Regulation Rollback: Will Worker Safety Suffer?

Jan. 4, 2017
Will workers be safe under the Trump administration? The answer is easy: It's up to business leaders.

Throughout Donald Trump's campaign for president, slashing regulations has been a core theme. Many of President Trump’s cabinet nominees are long standing opponents of a heavily regulated business environment. To underscore his seriousness about deregulation, Carl Icahn, a historical proponent of deregulation, will serve as Trump’s special advisor on regulatory reform.

As regulations are rolled back or right-sized, the concern is: will workers be safe under the Trump administration? The answer is easy: It's up to business leaders.

In reality, responsibility for worker safety always rests with business leaders and not with regulators. You see, the government's promulgation of wasteful regulations does not necessarily increase worker safety and therefore their repeal will not necessarily disrupt worker safety. At worst, regulations become a crutch. They provide the false feeling that we have created a safe environment if we are compliant. Nothing is further from the truth.

Safety and regulatory compliance simply are not the same. While some level of regulation clearly is essential, when politicians and regulators dictate the structure of our safety programs, there is a low probability that desirable safety outcomes will result. At their best, regulations provide only the minimum to get by. Take two hypothetical companies. Assume that both are fully compliant with all regulations. The first company has a tightly woven safety culture; values are aligned; leadership and front line employees are all engaged. The second company views safety as a cost; leadership is not engaged, unless OSHA visits or it's time to renew insurance. The fact that both companies are compliant has nothing to do with how likely Company 1 is to yield much safer outcomes than Company 2.

When high profile safety failures occur, a knee-jerk reaction is to run to Washington D.C. for the solution. While the government can and must be a partner in promoting safety, oftentimes the promulgation of more regulations provides the appearance of action, when in reality, safety is driven and owned by the private sector. 

Assuming President Trump is successful in identifying and repealing wasteful regulation and creating a collaborative tone, American business has a true opportunity.  We can show the government that safety is best driven by the private sector--those of us with our hands actually on the levers. If we live up to our end of the bargain, we can partner long-term to create improved worker protection and less need for regulations. If the private sector ignores its responsibility, you can be sure that the pendulum will swing back with a vengeance in the next election cycle to a cry for more regulation.

Here’s how business leaders can drive desired safety outcomes faster than any new regulation:

Ensure your employees report a near miss without fear of retribution. This will allow you to diagnose and prevent near misses so that an actual accident does not occur in the future.

Get out on the floor. Create a system of field-behavior observations to ensure employees are following processes.

Bring your front lines inside. They have the best idea of where the risks lie and, if engaged, will be your greatest source of information. Lecture less and listen more.

Ensure an ongoing system of process audits exists. Be your own worst critic to find flaws in the system and locate areas for improvement. Don’t wait for OSHA to visit.

Promote a culture of accountability.  Every employee should adopt a mindset of prevention and should be personally accountable for making this happen, both individually and peer to peer.

Implement a new employee onboarding process that instills preventative behaviors from day one. Just because a new hire knows how to execute a given job function does not mean that he or she knows how to do this in your organization and in line with your safety values.

In addition to simply repealing wasteful regulations, President Trump has the opportunity to establish a new tone between businesses and regulatory agencies. Let’s move from enforcement to collaboration. Most businesses want to operate safely and simply need the tools. What if we redirected some of our regulatory resources to helping these businesses improve, as opposed to looking for a way to immediately penalize them? Of course, enforcement efforts are appropriate for willful and repeat violators. For the majority of businesses who desire to operate safely, a collaborative approach will yield better results than one of assuming guilt at the outset.

If you think that changing the tone between regulators and the private sector is far-fetched, consider the fact that it is working well in so many areas. Examples include: EPA’s Smart Way initiative, OSHA’s VPP Star certification and the FAA’s self-disclosure program. Each of these highlight that public and private sectors can work collaboratively toward a shared goal.

Brian Fielkow, J.D., is CEO of Jetco Delivery, a multi-million dollar transportation company and winner of the 2016 Gold Safety Award from the Dow Chemical Co. He is the author of Leading People Safely and Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture.

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