Six Strategies for Stronger Safety Culture

EHS Today recently blogged about “Six Strategies for Stronger Safety Culture” (click HERE to see original article)

Their points provided good advice for any sort of safety culture:

1. Accountability

Setting goals and making them visible shows confidence on the part of management. Most importantly, it shows confidence that their employees will take safety seriously enough that they have minimal injuries. Everyone has something at stake when goals are set and managed. If the goals are a management priority, management must find ways to convey that to the people that work for them.

2. Engagement

CoachingWhen you look at companies with low X-mods and a consistent record of minimal injuries, the one trait that seems common to all of them is that the workforce is engaged in the company’s safety program. Employees are involved and participate. They feel like safety is a big part of the job, and there’s no reason to take shortcuts or unnecessary risks. [A strong communication plan would be essential for fleets whose drivers are scattered during a normal workday]

3. Recognition

Recognition in front of peers for a job well done is a definite motivator. To achieve a goal is one thing, but the achievement is not as impactful as when that achievement is recognized publicly. This should be one of the goals of a monthly safety meeting.

4. Motivation

Coaching Tips TitlePart of working hard to accomplish a goal is the payoff that’s expected at the end. When people are motivated to achieve a common goal, positive peer pressure will emerge, and you’ll notice employees encouraging co-workers to wear their PPE, clean a spill or be careful when performing a certain task. Culture tends to move as a group so the positive effects will be felt throughout the workforce and entire organization.

5. Appreciation

This one is a difference maker. It’s an easy one to overlook, but I can’t stress its importance enough. The No. 1 reason that people leave a job for another job is because they do not feel appreciated. 

6. Credibility

smc 1The final driver on our list is management credibility. We all have seen companies where management wishes there weren’t any injuries, but doesn’t respond immediately to reported hazards. Everything management does in regard to safety is a kind of proof statement. Workers don’t have to consciously know what actions are taken or not taken, but inconsistencies are noticed and a general attitude is established. That attitude typically is a direct reflection of the attitude that workers perceive management has toward safety.

These are only highlights from the report, but there’s a clear underlying message that communication, consistency, and clear goals/expectations are important to the process and the culture.  Getting everyone moving in the same direction can be a challenge, but building momentum and keeping focused are also important to getting strong results.


Leadership in Transportation Safety

NHTSA 2012 OverviewA recent Forbes article, titled; “Kindness does not equate to weakness in leadership” explores how we might make changes to our leadership style without undermining our authority as managers of employees/operators.

Kindness is often mistaken for weakness and vulnerability, but with regard to leadership kindness is best described as being able to demonstrate grace under pressure, leading by example, or balancing a genuine concern for the well-being of subordinates with the organization’s goals (i.e. the classic “win-win” scenario).

The author of the Forbes article sums it up nicely:

Think about esteemed leader Colin Powell for just a minute. In his book It Worked For Me, he talks about the skill set needed to be a drill sergeant. While every soldier is taught to fear his or her drill sergeant, the best drill sergeants aim to also instill strength and confidence in their soldiers. By building that strength through kindness, the sergeant is better able to deliver the very tough decisions that they need to make.

Of course, its important to remember that kindness doesn’t mean we never fire chronic poor performers who refuse to change their habits.  Kindness does NOT mean that we “wimp out” on tough decisions, or fail to do what’s necessary.

Kindness simply means listening, seeking a balance, and acting out of real concern whenever possible to assist our operators.


From a safety standpoint we talk about performance coaching sessions as “compassionate interventions” with operators who chronically take risks while behind the wheel (often leading to violations, failed inspections because of poor pre-trips, etc.)

The goals of the safety professional may (arguably) include:

  • Increase awareness of safety policies, goals and corporate achievement
  • Motivation of operators to engage their cooperation
  • Detect violation of policy and understand motivators (policy misalignment with production goals, failure to explain properly, etc.)
  • Monitoring of driver performance, violation history, etc.
  • Post-crash investigation (including rulings on preventability, fault status, etc.)

At issue isn’t the specific content of this bullet list, or how it’s worded — but rather how YOUR specific criteria is executed.

smc 1Is your safety leadership style:

  • Stern, but kind?  
  • Compassionate, but uniformly executed? 
  • Uncompromising, but educational and coaching based?
  • Focused on both right message and how it gets delivered?

Demonstrating kindness without compromising standards may be the key to increasing results without sacrificing tenure or increasing turnover.

What do you think?  Would kindness undermine safety and production?  Will seasoned drivers unfairly take advantage of kindness or see it as patronizing?  Can we be like that Drill Sergeant that inspires fearful respect while also coaching for better results?

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Holding on to the “best” drivers

At the start of this mini-series, we asserted that Recruiting and Retention are two ends of the same spectrum — if you manage your business well and treat drivers appropriately, you should be able to attract and keep the best drivers.

In the last article, we talked about methods and mechanisms designed to help you track your recruiting efforts and results.  Some sources and methods yield better results for some carriers than for others — it’s not a one-size-fits-all world and the same is true for Driver Retention. 

There are a ton of strategies and well intentioned opinions out there to consider, but what will work for YOUR company? 

It would be easy to start rambling off a long list of “must dos” about compensation package details, bonus program schemes, training programs, and “driver empowerment”, but that would miss the mark every time. Why? If we don’t know with certainty why drivers are leaving, we won’t know what we need to do to actually change the situation (*plus, every company is different: certain programs that may work for one company may not help your company at all).

Keeping drivers starts with understanding very precisely why they are leaving. You can assume or you can settle for a “canned answer”, but unless you’re willing to really push to discover the details, you may never really know why drivers are leaving your company.

As we had pointed out in the recruiting piece, information is your ally. Has your team:

  • Implemented a well structured exit interview process? 
    • Is this part of your driver handbook or policy manual? 
    • Does it include a pre-printed form with specific, mandatory questions? 
  • Insisted that each driver complete at least a phone interview before releasing final settlements or pay? (Face to face may be difficult, but may also be a “last ditch opportunity” to salvage the relationship) 
  • Tracked the results of each and every interview in a database or spreadsheet? 
  • Identified any ongoing trends? 
  • Periodically reviewed what questions (and follow up questions) are used to get drivers to reveal the true nature of why they’re leaving?

It can seem overwhelming if you get several drivers who really “unload” a ton of opinions and objections all at once. It’s also tough to deal with criticism of your own management style, but if you really want to improve retention results, you’ve got to be willing to wear a thick skin and deal with whatever the drivers reveal.

When you’ve done the exit interview process consistently with all drivers (not just the “good ones”) you’ll start to build some helpful information. Just as you wouldn’t spend money on a consultant and totally ignore his or her findings report, you’ll need to analyze the results of the exit interviews. This will help uncover the underlying issues that are giving your drivers a reason to shop around for another job. Chances are that these issues are the same at most companies, but that doesn’t excuse their existence (or the perception that the issues exist).

Now you have the hard work of setting priorities and beginning to address these issues. You still have to put out your normal day-to-day fires and deal with finding resources, but at least you’ll have a plan to start making changes based on the real issues.

Common driver concerns (that can push them to leave or keep them onboard) include:

  • “Pay” — The easiest answer for any driver to give is “I’m leaving due to the pay”. All drivers drive to get paid. If your pay was so horrible, why did they stay as long as they did? “Pay” is often a smokescreen to hide the real reasons – they want to be polite and give you some canned answer so they can leave.

Similarly, if you want to attract better quality (and long lasting) employees, you usually need to pay better than the “average”. Compensation specialists can consult with you to evaluate the average pay scale for each position and terminal area in your network (and deliver recommendations for adjustments based on market conditions).

  • Dispatch – Drivers don’t always enjoy a glowing and happy relationship with dispatchers. Let’s face reality – the dispatcher’s job is designed to increase productivity and move the maximum amount of loads as is possible. If dispatchers are causing un-needed friction, then you may need to work with them on their “people skills”. Maybe it’s that some drivers perceive that other drivers get all the “good” loads. That perception comes from gossip, but gossip usually starts with some element of truth that gets distorted. Make sure rules are followed and no one gets unfair treatment.
  • Training – Too much or too little training can give drivers a reason to complain. If the training helps them accomplish their daily tasks, and “feels” credible because it doesn’t talk down to them, then you’re doing well. If drivers are asking for help with route selection or how to deal with cranky shippers/customers, then maybe you need to address it ASAP. Training designed to help them advance in their career is becoming more common among progressive companies (i.e. training on using computers and the internet, training on better person to person communication skills, etc.) Training may be assigned based on career path plans to help transition some drivers into new roles such as dispatch, sales, safety or driver support roles.
  • Quality of Life – Also known as “too little home time”. Drivers with families must have some predictable home time or they will eventually come unglued. The issue is balancing what is reasonable with what is preferred. Sometimes there may be creative solutions to “quality of life” issues, but that will vary from driver to driver. Talking through the issue one-on-one is the only way to diagnose what could work beyond scheduling more “home time”.
  • Driver Respect/Quality of Equipment/Etc. – Drivers will always have concerns about how they feel they are treated. Whether their equipment is comfortable or dependable and so on. There are no easy answers, but ignoring their concerns is a sure way to show them the door and see them walk through it. Your team, I am sure, doesn’t ignore the concerns, but may have limited or no resources to address the concerns. Talk to your drivers – don’t let them assume you don’t care. (If this point hits close to home, read our two part article on Driver Communication Plans – it may be very helpful).

After investigating why drivers choose to leave, and implementing a plan to address any immediate areas of concern, you may want to begin to build “proactive” strategies to keep drivers motivated. Motivating drivers is all about keeping them excited about working for your company rather than looking at other companies.

When you practice these strategies efficiently, it can help you attract drivers from other companies (a boost to your recruiting efforts!)

We’ve outlined some of the most common strategies that fleets have used to build up their drivers confidence in their company.

  • Orientation – if you want employees who will stay, you need to introduce them to your company carefully and deliberately. What does your orientation program consist of now? How long does it last? Do you use veteran drivers as “mentors”? Do you give new hires a “lifeline” phone number to call when they’re really confused, angry, or out of their wits? Do they leave orientation feeling like they’re part of a team/family or just the next number (driver ID) in a long line of numbers? Does your orientation end when they hop in the truck, or do you have a 30-day, 60-day, 90-day follow up plan?
  • Training – When do you train and what does your training cover? Lifestyle training, wellness education, help dealing with family finances and tips on managing customers may be topics that drivers would line up to hear. Do you ever ask your drivers what types of non-traditional training could help them with their jobs? Training benefits both your drivers and your company (if the training helps them to perform more effectively).
  • Achievement – Does your company have a career plan for drivers? Can drivers “graduate” to different titles, pay scales, or job responsibilities (i.e. driver trainer, driver support, sales, dispatch, etc?)
  • Recognition – How do you give drivers recognition of a job done correctly and safely?
    • Are there anniversary rewards?
    • Are there safety bonuses or incentives?
    • Is your recognition program cash based, or product based?
    • Do you have company logo-ed shirts, hats, pins, or other give-aways that promote your company and promote loyalty to your company? If you decide to try offering promotional materials, don’t be tempted to skimp on quality – giving out cheaply made items can backfire (it may be perceived that you don’t think them worthy of quality products).
    • Do you ever recognize your drivers in their hometown newspaper when they’ve achieved anniversaries (miles driven with no accident, most miles driven in the year, etc.)?
  • Driver Support Department (i.e. steadiness of work, “getting enough loads”, support while on the road, etc.) – How does your team work to keep drivers as busy as they want to be, and balance that with “home time”? It is a real juggling act that takes a lot of talent – talent that many drivers may not appreciate or understand. Can you help them understand that it’s not a personal attack against drivers, but the logistics of the marketplace that drive these situations? How does your home base team help support drivers who are otherwise isolated and “out of sight”?
  • Dispatchers and Drivers as a team – due to turnover, do you make efforts to keep dispatchers and drivers meeting each other as frequently as possible? If they work as a team instead of impersonal adversaries, you’ll probably achieve more goals (including turnover reductions). If you can’t arrange frequent face to face activities, can you keep a one page biography on each driver and dispatcher so that they can get introduced by email (at a minimum?) What is your driver to dispatcher ratio (and is it too high)? 
  • Ongoing Driver Communication Plan – Do your drivers know your company’s business goals and how drivers can specifically help achieve those goals? Do you ever discuss a driver’s personal goals during the annual review so that you can see how the company may assist him or her achieve those goals? Drivers may be more interested in helping your company meet goals if your company takes an interest in the driver’s goals, too.
  • Safety or Equipment issues – any hazard to personal safety should be addressed immediately and systematically.

Connections between Retention and Recruiting

If you keep drivers longer because you’ve investigated and addressed their most pressing concerns about working for your company, then you’ve accomplished three things:

  1. You’re retaining drivers longer
  2. You’ve improved your company’s operations (efficiency)
  3. You’ve started to make your company more attractive to other drivers (recruiting)

People want to work for companies that are perceived as “good” or “winning” companies (companies that they can be proud of). A well managed company that fairly enforces simple rules and demonstrates that they value their drivers as important team members will keep their drivers longer and attract greater numbers of job seekers.


There are no “silver bullet” solutions, or trendy, novel “programs in a box” that will suddenly cure your unique driver recruiting and retention issues. However, there are many resources available to help you track information and investigate your situation.

Take time to inventory your current strategies and evaluate their effectiveness. You may be surprised to find that a little “fine tuning” will get you greatly improved results.

About the Author

Prior to joining SafetyFirst Systems, Paul Farrell worked in the insurance industry as a Loss Prevention Professional. During his tenure in the insurance industry, Paul worked closely with many different industries that use commercial vehicles to complete their daily tasks. Additionally, Paul has completed numerous fleet safety training programs and has developed fleet safety programs in support of his clients’ loss prevention goals. As CEO of SafetyFirst, Paul continues to work with insurance carriers, risk managers and directors of safety to help ensure the welfare of their drivers and to assist them with their regulatory compliance programs.

About the Company

SafetyFirst works with more than 3,800 fleet clients throughout North America.  We provide DQ File Maintenance systems, Automated MVR ordering and profiling, safety hotline services, monthly driver training packages and Training for Supervisors on “Driver Coaching”.

Driver-Management Communication Plans (Part 1)

Business results, crash rates, turnover, tenure (loyalty), and attitudes can be directly affected by how we communicate with drivers and what message we choose to take to them. Even more importantly, their willingness to “step up” and help our companies meet the challenge may be dictated by how well and how sincerely we listen to them.

CoachingThese interpersonal “soft skills” often get pushed to the side in the urgency of completing schedules, making inspections and completing audits. Merely meeting the technical requirements of managing drivers can only get us so far towards our goal of an effective operation.

When fleets practice a communication plan with their drivers (crews / job site teams, etc.) on a consistent basis, they can recognize benefits like:

  • increased loyalty (tenure)
  • decreased turnover
  • better cooperation between drivers and dispatchers or supervisors
  • the potential to convert “whine-ers” into “winners” by changing their attitudes or perceptions

There’s little doubt that trying to make a driver feel like he or she is part of a larger team is a good idea.

Large_Trucks_Cover_Front-300x287While researching this article, I contacted several of our largest clients to ask how they communicate with their drivers. I wanted to learn what they think is important to influence favorable driver retention and what they felt was important to include in a driver communication plan. I also expected that they face the greatest challenges since they have a large number of drivers in many locations (complicating their communication plan), but that they would also have a greater pool of resources available to them. What I learned from them could apply to fleet operations of any size.

A large motor coach fleet with over 300 drivers said;

  • “…the quality of the front line supervisory team is essential to the recruitment and retention of drivers. Drivers want to be treated with Dignity & Respect with consideration of their skills. Many “old line” dispatchers can not make “the transition”
  • The other thing we all must do better is forget about taking care of the constant whine-ers. As management we can fall into the trap of spending 90% of our time on the 10% of the employees who are never happy. By doing so we ignore the best people and forget to recognize them.

An arborist with thousands of drivers said;

  • “…It’s all about focus and not wasting the employee’s time with a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter. Tell them what matters.”
  • “The big question is…what is that?”

One of our key contacts within the insurance industry had recently worked for one of the largest private fleets in the USA. She offered the following comments:

  • “Communication with drivers can be challenging and I have found, to be effective, you need to do it frequently by multiple methods.”
  • “Periodic meetings – should have some type of recognition for drivers that perform well or made some type of improvement, give drivers updates and provide a brief time for drivers to ask questions. At subsequent meetings, management should have addressed these questions, or be able to give a status of previously submitted suggestions.”

Other clients stressed the need to ensure drivers “feel the love” – that their supervisors and dispatchers “value” the contribution being made by the driver’s consistent job performance. Some of the ideas included: placing notes on drivers windshields for them to find when picking up their equipment, or placing a letter for each day that they are on the road in separate envelops (so that they get a fresh message each morning). Most of our clients stressed that it was important to demonstrate a simple sincerity in exchanging suggestions, concerns and ideas.

The Real Challenge

Drivers are largely isolated from the rest of the company due to the nature of their work. Even those who report to a specific location to start their day, spend the remainder of it on their own.

An author once remarked; “Isolation is a dream killer”. If we substitute the word “goal” for “dream”, it would be easy to see how letting drivers feel isolated could minimize their contributions to revenue, safety or other business goals. At the same time, if managers never attempt to understand what their driver’s goals or dreams may be, the drivers will continue to feel isolated even with an aggressive communication plan.


Every company talks “at” their drivers, but does the “communication plan” extend beyond sending instructions? Tommy Lasorda, the major league baseball coach, once said; “I motivate players through: communication, being honest with them, having them respect and appreciate my ability and my help.” Tommy’s quote didn’t end at clear communications “to” the players, it completes a thought by developing his player’s trust in him by helping them and by demonstrating his abilities to them. He didn’t demand their respect and trust, he took time to earn it.

It can be very difficult to “break the ice” with drivers. They tend to be fiercely independent and “love the freedom of the road”. Is this a defense mechanism for dealing with being alone most of their days? Every driver I’ve ever met loves to talk, complain, or “give suggestions”. I have to wonder whether it’s their intent to incessantly talk or a psychological cry to want to be heard.

My suspicions have been formed from meeting with many commercial fleets to conduct driver training sessions while employed in the insurance industry. Immediately following the training session, I’d be swarmed with drivers asking me to carry messages back to their management team (who were standing less then fifty feet away). Most of these messages focused on trying to improve conditions or make managers aware of perceived injustices. As an “outsider” from the insurance company, they confided that I would be “listened to” by their management team (clearly demonstrating their belief that they would not be heard by their own managers).


A colleague who continues to consult with fleets through his insurance career reminded me of these meetings with the following story. He participated in a driver’s annual dinner and business meeting:

  • “Like many companies, they are struggling with turnover. However, one branch has had essentially zero turnover, with very high driver morale.
  • At the annual meeting; “…driver after driver, as they received their years-of-service awards, pointed to the branch manager…and they all said the same thing.”
  • They said; “…when they go into his office with a question, problem, or concern, they feel they are the most important and most respected person in the world.”

That manager made time to listen to their dreams, concerns, frustrations, and, in turn, he earned the right to get them to listen to his (the company’s). All I’m suggesting is that “communication” will require some key listening along with talking.

Dennis Hall, an Olympian said; “If I teach them nothing else, they will learn about teamwork, we do not leave anyone alone. If we don’t do it together, we don’t do itDoes your management team “leave anyone alone” or do you “do it together” with your drivers as a team?

Check out PART TWO of this discussion.  If you’re looking for practical ways to increase the two-way communication, please check out our client networking group on LinkedIn.

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