Workplace Safety Culture: Transformation Strategies Leading Up to Harvest

This article is based on portions of a video presented Aug. 23 by the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) as part of its annual Harvest Safety Week.

It features Jess McCluer, NGFA vice president, safety and regulatory affairs, and Jason Eardley, director of process safety for ADM, Decatur, IL.

Eardley chairs the NGFA Safety, Health and Environmental Quality Committee. To listen to the video presentation, called Creating a Culture of Safety, go to, or scan the QR code.

Harvest Initiative

McCluer: As part of NGFA’s 125th anniversary, we have engaged in a number of initiatives related to our new slogan, “Transforming America’s Harvest.” This includes transforming workplace safety culture, which potentially can save lives.

These initiatives consist of a suite of safety training materials available through our website,, which include our recently published firefighting manual for operators of grain handling facilities and fire department officials.

This is our third Harvest Safety Week highlighting safety-related topics as we get into the harvest season.

Key Behaviors

Eardley: Changing a culture, as we’ve done over the past 20 years, isn’t something you can do overnight. Our safety culture is better than it was 20 years ago, but the improvement has been incremental.

One thing we’ve done is to really make sure we drive our message for leadership to “walk the walk.” When they are out in the field, they need to do everything correctly. This includes wearing the appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment), following the rules, and setting the example. By doing these things, we are setting the expectations for everyone at the facility.

One thing we have tried to improve in the last few years is interviewing prospective new hires in relation to facility needs. When I started 20 years ago in a flour mill, a lot of the questions were about: Can you work weekends? Can you work nights? Now we ask more questions about a prospective colleague’s attitudes toward health and safety. We look to bring on board colleagues who have similar values to us. These are not things you change overnight.

McCluer: That points to the value of being a member of the association. It provides an opportunity to share that information, for members to share their best practices. I think that’s where the members see the value of being part of NGFA.

Safety Contacts

Eardley: Around the year 2000, we had a new president come in to ADM. He looked at our performance and the number of injuries we had, and he said it was unacceptable.

So we started a program that involved training for everyone in the company. There was additional training that was required of supervisors.

The program centered around making safety contacts. We told everyone from the CEO down to every member of the company to make safety contacts whenever they see something compromising safety, whether it was the behavior of a person or a condition in the facility. You were empowered to do so. There was no discipline if you did that. We want you to do that.

That helped for a number of years. We’ve been steadily improving that concept. We’ve empowered all of our employees to stop work or to not start work when they see a safety concern.

That continued as part of the next step, which was to have employees perform a job safety analysis (JSA), a program that we still have in place now. If an employee is doing a JSA, chances are that he or she is doing it with other people, as well. So again, any one member of that team has the power to make a safety contact and, if necessary, stop work or not start work if any one member of the group feels there is a safety risk.

Finally, we implemented a behavior-based safety system. A lot of businesses in our industry and across all industries have done this. But we’ve shifted the focus from not just looking for negative behaviors to reinforcing positive behaviors that your coworkers are exhibiting.

A large part of our training is about what to do if somebody brings up something to you. That’s hard to do. It’s difficult to confront someone if you think they’re doing something incorrectly or potentially putting people at risk. A lot of people are averse to doing that; it’s human nature. Part of our training is that we want and expect you to make those kinds of safety contacts.

On the flip side, if someone makes that safety contact to you, understand that they’re looking out for your best interest. The training goes both ways, both giving and receiving. You need to be comfortable and confident to do both.

Understand that when you make safety contacts, you’re coming from a good place. It’s coming from a perspective that we don’t want people to get injured or become sick. So take it well.

McCluer: That goes back to what we can offer at NGFA through our outreach and through the expertise of people like Jason. If you see someone doing something unsafely, consider why they are doing it. Instead of being c reactionary, we need to be proactive in applying the background and expertise of others. This kind of organization will be helpful to smaller or medium-sized companies just now starting to go through the process Jason described from 20 years ago.

Motivating Employees

Eardley: We’ve tried many different ways of encouraging the kind of behavior we want. People are motivated in different ways. We’ve tried giving out prizes. Some people enjoy public recognition. Other employees hate that.

I had a colleague who did three JSAs, made safety contacts, and revised one of our loadout equipment procedures. I thought I could recognize him in front of coworkers at a monthly lunchbox meeting. Or maybe I could have a regional manager call him and give him accolades. But some people don’t want that attention. Some people are made uncomfortable by it.

I wish there was a way where all you had to do is give everyone a Snickers bar. You have to know your employees. Maybe they don’t want a Snickers bar. Maybe they prefer to get a call from an upper-level leader. Sometimes we might take someone out to lunch down the street.

It’s a blend of all of these things. You have to know your colleagues. If you do something that they understand and appreciate, it means a lot. Some workers like the recognition, where others would prefer that you take them off by themselves and thank them personally.

Peer Pressure

Eardley: For behavior-based safety, we brought in an outside organization to implement it. Not everyone will have the money to do that. It all comes down to learning what motivates individual people, and that’s not easy to do.

In some cases, some friendly competition might help. We might post the number of safety contacts – John did three, but Bob didn’t do any. If we’re being competitive, I want to be the one on top. The corn processors two states over are beating us up on some issue. We’ve got to catch up to them. Peer pressure and competition do drive some people. We track it and put it into the database.

McCluer: Before you do something like that, it’s important to check to see what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) policies are about safety competitions. There are issues related to finding employees, individuals who can fit into a safety program environment in a big facility. It’s all getting back to being proactive and not reactive in safety policies, the result of discussions we’ve had on c personnel issues.

Eardley: We’re talking about doing JSAs and making safety contacts. Ultimately, we’re not talking about a Snickers bar because you didn’t get hurt. We know injuries will go down because we’re being proactive on safety.

Safety Rock Stars

Eardley: We have a formal safety committee that meets every month. Some of our locations aren’t big enough to have that, but they’ll have some type of safety group. We’ll take our “rock stars,” the ones who provide a good example and show that they care about safety, and put them in some kind of leadership role on these committees. They’re our ambassadors and will take the initiative in recognizing Bob for an outstanding performance.

On the flip side, many of these rock stars aren’t titled leaders. But when these untitled leaders are engaged in activities, they’re setting an example. We need to keep motivating and encouraging them. Their coworkers can see that they’re being recognized for their activities.

Maintaining Focus

Eardley: If I walk by something wrong and don’t do anything about it, I’ve tacitly accepted and encouraged that behavior to continue. It’s as bad as saying, “Nice job not wearing your safety gloves. See you later.” You cannot do that, because you’ll set back your safety efforts.

It’s the same when our safety committee visits other facilities for our regional meetings. We do look for these things. If we see a guy walking across the property without any PPE, we’ll confront those behaviors. If you are not courageous enough to make a safety contact, you’re essentially encouraging that behavior, and it will continue, probably get worse, and spread to other areas.

Training Materials

McCluer: Part of what NGFA offers is resources from a regulatory standpoint,whether it’s OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, or U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We’re offering these materials to members, and most of it is available to non-members, too.

That goes back to our commitment to safety. NGFA began working with OSHA back in the late 1970s and early 1980s and helped to develop the Grain Handling standard. That had a significant impact on the reduction in explosions we had in the industry.

A safety culture has a lot to do with the people who are involved, facilities, locations, and how long they’ve been with the company. We try to supply them with material that has been developed in the interim by people like Jason. A lot of these resources are available to anyone at

Discipline Issues

Eardley: Discipline is always a struggle. How do people know what is expected of them? It can be challenging, especially during harvest.

One thing we do is enforce what we used to call “cardinal rules.” Now we call them “life-critical standards.” These refer to some extremely risky behaviors that can take place at a grain handling facility. We have potential dust explosions. We have lockout/tagout and mechanical issues. We have engulfment and atmospheric hazards. These are some very life-critical issues we have to address.

We always want to focus on positive behaviors, but we have to set some base expectations. Make sure employees understand that if you want to work here, you’re not going into that bin. You need to know right up front that there are some things that you cannot do.

McCluer: We have tip sheets and videos with this information (go to and click Safety). The new generation will determine the forms of communication and what the message is going to be. Not everything is going to be the same.

Ed Zdrojewski, editor

- From the September/October 2021 GRAIN JOURNAL