A plethora of procedures and prescriptions are available for safety measures in the workplace. The BMWT handbook, a guide published by the Netherland’s main organisation for suppliers of warehouse, transport and road construction equipment, offers over 300 safety procedures. Yet until recently, nobody really knew which procedures actually worked or not, as no comprehensive study had been performed. To remedy this, Professor René de Koster and his colleagues carried out extensive research to determine the dominant drivers employed by companies with excellent safety records.
“The Dutch building sector, warehousing included, is statistically most prone to accidents, hence the need for this thorough study.”
– Professor René de Koster
The research comprised several stages. Initially, several years’ worth of data on accidents was gathered and analysed. An investigation was then made into the number and types of safety systems used in warehouses. It became clear that in practice, a diverse range of safety procedures and equipment was being used.
A survey was designed for defining and quantifying hazard reducing systems. It went on to define safety performance, distilling managerial insights by making successful safety measures explicit. Employees and managers were questioned on the number and type of accidents occurring in their workplace and how safe they deemed it to be, how they felt about managers’ leadership abilities regarding safety, and the types of hazard reducing systems in use.
The primary conclusion was that safety measures were largely driven by managerial leadership, who transfers safety awareness onto employees. According to Professor De Koster and his colleagues, with a proactive manager and strong safety leadership, even the most accident prone places can become safe.4
Despite growing automation, many processes still require low-skilled labour. A strong, safety oriented focus is a good instrument for motivating such employees. Companies engaging in safety awareness through this transformational style of leadership listen to and empower their workers by giving them responsibility over setting and fulfilling their own safety goals and by leading by example.
Yearly, the Netherlands holds a national ‘Safest Warehouse of the Year’ award to highlight companies pushing and improving safety in the industry. All winning companies employ the safety measures and leadership style indicated by this research. The winners are then required to show others how they operate, and thus, disseminate successful means of raising safety. The influence of the awards is notable: hundreds of visitors show up each year. It also garners tremendous publicity and coverage in leading logistics websites and magazines.
The research impact is most prevalent in translating explicit safety drivers, such as the effects of successful managers’ personality traits, into criteria used for evaluating companies taking part in the awards. These new criteria have also been added to a warehouse safety benchmark, available online through the BMWT association. Companies can now consult and check their implementation of effective safety measures. Partly as a result of this, the Netherlands is a world leader in workplace safety.
The key outcome, aside from better criteria and benchmarks for evaluating safety, was in showing the consequences of a lax attitude to safety. Such an attitude negatively impacts the workforce, results in higher direct and indirect costs to the company, and potentially damages company reputation. On the other hand, a positive and proactive attitude toward safety has been shown to significantly improve employee satisfaction while reducing costs and improving work quality and company productivity.5
4 De Koster, R., Stam, D., Balk, B., 2011, Accidents happen: The influence of safety-specific transformational leadership, safety consciousness, and hazard reducing systems on warehouse accidents, Journal of Operations Management, 29 (7), 753-765.
5 De Vries, J., De Koster, R., Stam, D., 2016, Safety does not happen by accident: antecedents to a safer warehouse, Production and Operations Management, 25(8), 1377-1390.