Safety Behavior Modification Using a Closed-Loop Approach in the Fire Service

By Don Kirkham

A culture of safety begins with a dedicated and methodical approach to reinforce the virtues of safety. Using an approach that "closes the loop" on each aspect of the program is vital. This program consists of six components, each with a common thread of closing the loop (i.e. providing comprehensive documentation and follow-up). The closed-loop method ties every facet of safety behavior modification into a cohesive program. Each component helps in team building and insuring results are documented and issues resolved.

1. Daily safety moment. At the start of each shift, all senior staff members and key officers review plans for the day in a start-of-shift meeting. These are to begin with a safety moment, which helps reinforce safety as a core value. The message addresses any subject related to safety or health. Many times it is germane not only to the workplace but home safety as well. We endeavor to educate, coach, and promote safety awareness in all aspects of our firefighters' lives.

Each week, one "safety moment" is devoted to the officers and firefighters presenting their research based on a question they were tasked to answer. These questions pertain to material that was intentionally omitted in previous discussions. The answer quantifies their understanding of the material presented and forces them to delve more deeply into the subject matter at their own pace. Engaging active participation in the group helps facilitate professional bonding and team building. The training officer collects the responses and updates the training log. The "safety moments" are then filed and retained for future reference.

This year we embarked on a mock trial from an actual Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Recordable. Names were drawn from a hat for the entire judiciary: the judge, three jurors, two attorneys, assistant attorneys, actual witnesses of the incident from four years ago, and media members. The mock trial began from the actual incident report filed and all supporting evidence was presented to both attorneys. The trial took approximately one month to complete, with two weeks of the month being devoted to research and formulating arguments, subpoenaing expert testimony, etc. The "attorneys" were extremely diligent and provided excellent points in their favor. The graphic representations were very valuable. In conclusion, the "trial" was enlightening for the entire group, participation was extremely gratifying, and learning why the importance of proper documentation is so important was validated.

2. Safety committee: The safety committee meets monthly and is comprised of 19 members. The health, safety, and environmental officer coordinates and facilitates the meeting. The senior officer is in attendance but rarely speaks to allow for a free flow of information. The maintenance/facility officer, human resource (HR) manager, and training officer represent their specific areas. The balance represents all facets of officers and firefighters. The most vocal of firefighters are chosen as safety committee members for their willingness to share their opinions. All members are encouraged to broach subjects related to health, safety, and environmental hazards. As the topic is presented notes are taken and documented. The meeting minutes are distributed to all members for review prior to the next safety committee.

Each of the safety concerns presented are placed on a spreadsheet with the following details: date, presenter name, safety concern, person or group assigned to follow up, date to reply, remedy proposed, disposition, and evaluation of effectiveness. The idea of a firefighter's suggestion being taken seriously and addressed quickly has given rise to a new paradigm of mutual respect and trust. Finally, the spreadsheet is forwarded to the chief for review and approval.

3. Monthly firefighter safety behavioral and engineering audits. Each month, the safety officer conducts approximately 25 percent of the department's individual safety behavioral audits. These audits are mandated to be performed by every officer from the chief to the lieutenants. The firefighters selected to be audited are randomly selected by a computer program and assigned to each auditor, which ensures that each auditor is assigned personnel from different shifts and different areas of the department. The rationale behind this random auditing is to acquaint every officer with every section and every shift in the department. This allows a "fresh eyes" approach. For the auditor to complete the audit form, they must be aware of the personal protective equipment (PPE) required in that particular area, acquaint themselves with the tasks at hand, understand ergonomic issues that can arise, and have a depth of knowledge enabling them to appreciate the entire process.

Every comment noted on the audit form is recorded and entered onto a spreadsheet. If the comment was positive it is forwarded to the firefighter's supervisor for positive reinforcement. If the comment is negative, it is evaluated for further discussion, additional training, disciplinary action, or reviewed for an engineering solution to remove the hazard. Once the appropriate action is formulated it is put into action and noted on the spreadsheet. Requiring department intermixing in the auditing process had enabled members to appreciate unrelated tasks and led to a more cohesive team. This unanticipated outcome has shown that open communications result in a "win-win" environment. As a final closure, the spreadsheet is sent to the chief for review and approval.

4. Incident reporting. An incident report is created anytime there is a near miss, safety incident, equipment malfunction, hazmat incident, accident, injury, or general safety concern. Each incident report must detail who, what, when, why, and how. These reports are not fault-finding processes but rather learning tools to enhance a safe work environment. Each incident is fully investigated to determine the root cause and determine a corrective action. Whoever is involved in an incident is automatically sent for a drug/alcohol screen. There is a specific procedure to follow for this event. Each firefighter and supervisor involved in the event must write their own statement, sign and date. The front-line officer then forwards the form to the senior shift officer for their review and signature. The safety officer completes the investigation and recommends corrective action based upon the root-cause analysis. If training is required, the training officer is apprised; if there is discipline involved, the HR manager is informed; and if the there is an engineering/facility solution proposed, the support services officer is brought into the loop. Establishing a clear line of communication is essential for a successful incident report. Encouraging firefighters to know and understand that the process is not to find fault can be the key to ferreting out and documenting all incidents. A trusting relationship can only be built with open communications and sincere and honest concern for each other. We are all our brother's keepers.

Once the form is completed, the loop-closing process is to submit it to the chief officer for their signature. If the chief has additional questions, it is returned to safety officer for clarification or additional work.

5. Six "S" (6S).safety involvements. The 6S approach (standardize, sort, set in order, scrub and shine, safety, and sustain) is relatively new. Safety is now an integral component of the 6S process and has been integrated into the 6S process by the incorporation of deducting points for lost time or an injury event, a near miss, safety audit findings, and so on. Creating an atmosphere of self-inspection and self-criticism can be difficult, however these exercises will build character, teamwork, and communications. The feeling of support and positive reinforcement will serve as a firm foundation for a meaningful and sustaining safety program.

The 6S scores can be tied to the officers' annual performance evaluation and ultimately their annual compensation. The safety officer forwards the information to the appropriate officer each month, so completing the 6S form accurately is essential. Creating an atmosphere of accountability for the officers in a monetary fashion aids in a reward for maintaining a safe and healthy environment. This has been a very effective means of establishing buy-in from all firefighters. It has also resulted in monitoring of specific areas and aiding in the formulation of trend analysis and statistical data-mining. The data mining has proven to be a very valuable tool in predictive behavior modeling.

6. Visual safety messages. These are useful for contact all of the senses to convey the safety culture message. Safety bulletin boards are placed in strategic areas to broadcast the message well. For example, a safety board placed at or near the entrance is instrumental in educating firefighters. Using any space where firefighters congregate offers the perfect opportunity to display safety information, which must be entertaining and educational simultaneously. Another method to assist with training of PPE is to use boards in the areas where PPE is required. Using pictures to visually describe the types of PPE required and then defining tasks that need PPE gives a handy training tool or a convenient retraining tool.

Visual aids help in closing the training or retraining loop. They are passive reminders that present a powerful message, which is a key factor in maintaining a safety thought all during the day.

Using the above suggested methods can help your fire department realize its goal of modifying firefighter safety behaviors and establishing a safety culture.

DON KIRKHAM is a retired firefighter/medic from the Delaware City (OH) Fire Department. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire science and in engineering, a master's degree in public administration, and a Ph.D. in business administration. He is is Health, Safety and Environmental/Facility Manager at Molded Fiberglass South Dakota in Aberdeen.

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