Global standard: International dimensions of safety

  • The characteristics that drive safety performance are consistent worldwide, although implementation may differ based on the workforce. 
  • Cultural sensitivity is crucial to successful global operations.
  • Strategies for educating workers in different countries include using local people as translators and providing English as a Second Language courses.
  • Even safety professionals who do not work at multinational organizations can benefit from being aware of global EHS trends.

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

Safety professionals at multinational organizations face many challenges as they work to establish a common safety culture at facilities around the world. A global workforce does not speak the same language or practice the same customs. And workplace safety laws and enforcement philosophies may vary by continent, country and even state.

“If your company has just purchased another company that has operations in maybe two or three continents, you are having to start anew,” said Kathy Seabrook, president of Global Solutions Inc., a Mendham, NJ-based environmental, health and safety consulting firm. “Literally, it’s starting at ground zero in terms of developing a culture that’s going to be based on your home office.”

Experts say balancing corporate culture with local culture requires sensitivity and skill. However, with the challenges also come new opportunities for safety professionals.

Larger perspective

The trend toward globalization – the interconnectedness of world economies and cultures – has opened up the scope of learning for safety professionals, according to Dee Woodhull, a principal at Mercer ORC Networks, a global EHS firm in Washington.

“Obviously, it has broadened their perspective on what has to be done to get people to implement good practices,” she said. “It has also broadened their perspective on what’s possible to do. Here in the U.S., we don’t have all the answers by any means. Other regions of the world, say the [European Union] and China, have implemented new practices that we have been looking at closely to see how they can be implemented here.”

For example, Woodhull said risk assessment practices in the European Union are helping shape discussions about an OSHA injury and illness prevention program rule.

She added that it has become more important for employers to understand a broader range of occupational safety and health laws and standards in different countries. As organizations increasingly move jobs out of the United States, business leaders have to travel to sites around the world to bring workers up to speed on safety and health and manage those programs.

Colin Duncan, CEO of Ojai, CA-based Behavioral Science Technology Inc., cautioned against letting stereotypes about people in another part of the world hinder efforts to improve safety. BST is a safety consulting firm that works with multinational organizations and regional players on several continents.

Duncan has heard expatriate managers say the problem with safety culture in certain countries is people there do not value safety or do not care about human life. Those flawed paradigms leave managers feeling helpless to improve behavior and frequently become self-fulfilling, he said.

In reality, Duncan concluded, the “cultural diagnostics” or characteristics of a safety culture that drive performance are remarkably consistent worldwide. One attribute is employees’ ability to raise safety concerns with their peers: Are they comfortable and confident warning a peer about risky behaviors? Another is the relationship between supervisor and subordinate with respect to a sense of fairness in treatment. “It’s not safety-specific, but it has a very strong bearing on safety performance,” Duncan said of the latter factor.

He noted that any country may be home to some of the safest and most hazardous industrial facilities. “It’s not the local culture; it’s the culture inside the factory gates that determines whether you can implement successful programs to improve safety performance,” he said.

Communicating across cultures

Although the characteristics that drive safety performance may be the same, the best way to manage safety depends on the specific workforce.

An effective global EHS leader, Woodhull said, must be culturally sensitive. “Most people everywhere in the world want to do what their employer wants them to do,” she said. “It’s really a question of understanding their cultural values and being able to communicate within those values.”

For instance, Mexican culture tends to place emphasis on family, so one way to motivate workers is to talk about how the consequences of their actions will affect their loved ones, she said. In Korea, a group award may be more effective than individual recognition because workers have strong ties to groups.

Santa Clara, CA-based Intel Corp. has experience with striking a balance between corporate and local culture. The technology company’s strategy is rooted in the belief that “people are our most valuable asset,” said Chris Bundrum, corporate EHS compliance assurance program manager at Intel.

“We want to let our sites be themselves,” Bundrum stressed. “We want them to embrace their culture and their thinking and their innovation.”

To that end, Intel deviated from its nomenclature for naming manufacturing fabrication facilities at the request of workers in Dalian, China. The workers asked for the name “Fab 68” instead of the number assigned to their facility because in Chinese culture, 6 represents smooth sailing and 8 signals prosperity. “They used their culture to help define the name of the Fab,” Bundrum said.

Along with culture, hierarchy is important in global operations. According to Seabrook, a safety professional at a multinational organization typically cannot contact leaders in an operation in another country and tell them what to do. “It’s about the leaders talking to the leaders,” she said.

In Seabrook’s opinion, the biggest issue global organizations face is aligning and integrating safety and health within the business environment. She emphasized the importance of leadership at the corporate headquarters defining priorities and communicating them throughout the entire organization. Changing behaviors and attitudes requires motivation and time, she added, “especially when you’re dealing around the world because you’re translating words.”

Internal, external standards

According to Seabrook, government and regulatory agencies often hold U.S.-based organizations to a higher standard than indigenous companies.

She advised multinational organizations to develop and implement one standard for risks such as lead, forklifts or confined spaces. “There’s a ramp-up time to actually do the implementation,” she said, “but the goal is to have the same controls in place that you would anywhere in the world. And reputational risk is everything.”

Whatever the regulatory environment, John Puskar said employers should not provide inferior equipment relative to what they would provide elsewhere. Puskar is principal of Cleveland-based CEC Combustion Services Group, which conducts fuel system and combustion equipment testing in several countries.

“[Government regulators] never want to feel like you sacrificed or risked their [country’s] families for the sake of earning an extra dollar from them,” he said.

Puskar cautioned that other countries may have a different enforcement philosophy. After an industrial accident in the United States, civil penalties are common but employers rarely face criminal charges. In some parts of the globe, managers are more likely to be held criminally responsible.

“So if you’re not thinking about these kinds of things and not thinking about their mind-set, you really better wake up and think about their mind-set,” Puskar said. “If you clearly don’t have well-established training practices, where you can have very strong evidence that you have a safety culture and it’s a priority, you just might be one of those people having a hard time getting out of the country.”

Puskar recommended employers audit their international facilities and ensure employees worldwide receive appropriate training. Also, pay attention to near misses or consistent reliability problems, which often serve as precursors to catastrophes, he said.
Overcoming language barriers

When developing training for a global workforce, employers should consider different educational and cultural backgrounds. Puskar made that point with an anecdote about a plant in Asia where a propane-fueled processing oven exploded. The plant workers were asked afterward if they had smelled propane. After an odor demonstration, they indicated they were familiar with the smell from work, but they did not realize it was from propane or hazardous because at home they burned wood, not propane, Puskar said.

Regarding training, language clearly plays a big role in making sure workers understand safety messages. Lawrence Schulze, associate professor and ergonomics/safety program director at the University of Houston, has studied the impact of globalization on occupational safety and health. He identified language and education as two major issues that put workers at risk. A common strategy for addressing these issues is using local people as translators.

“One, they are already in the peer group of the workers, so they’re accepted,” Schulze said. “Two, they become the interface between their language and dialect to the language and dialect of the multinational organization.” This helps the translators increase their educational level and status within the organization, he added.

Schulze has noticed more multinational organizations providing English as a Second Language courses at worksites. “They’re finally understanding that a more educated workforce is a safer workforce,” he said.

Bundrum recommended translating materials into a variety of languages, and ensuring the accuracy of the translations. “You want to make sure that the message is actually being delivered and you’re not losing something in the translation. And keeping the message simple, I think, is a part of that,” he said.

Similar to other multinational organizations, Intel experiences a high turnover of EHS professionals in fast-moving economies such as Asia. While Bundrum said Intel would love to retain those employees (and offers professional development programs to encourage retention), he also found a silver lining: “Although it’s a challenge for us, we don’t always look at it as a lose-lose situation because we’re out here growing some of the professionals,” he said. 

Wearing the global hat 

Seabrook has taught global EHS seminars since 1996. At the beginning of a class, she asks people to raise their hands if they work for a U.S.-based multinational organization. Ten years ago, few participants worked for multinational organizations headquartered in another country; today, at least one-third of them do, she said.

“We have to align and assimilate with the culture of the company that has purchased the head office, [which] might not be an American multinational,” Seabrook said.

In those situations, American safety professionals are charged with communicating about the regulatory environment in the United States. They also need to understand the type of enforcement in other countries.

Having a global mind-set is important for safety professionals even if they do not work for a multinational organization. Seabrook pointed to regulatory trends concerning hazardous materials, such as the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals – an initiative to standardize the classification and labeling of chemicals in different countries.

She also predicted the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals regulation will influence Material Safety Data Sheets and chemical labeling beyond Europe. (REACH requires manufacturers and importers to register information on the properties of chemical substances in a central database.)

Another reason to take a global perspective is that circumstances change. Seabrook recalled hearing from a former seminar participant whose employer had been purchased by a Mexico multinational organization and another who had recently taken on the role of global director.

“You never know when you’re going to get the global hat,” she said. “And frankly, it’s good career progression.”

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