One in three work comp claims involves a new hire. How can business owners ensure their new employees have the training they need to stay safe on the job? We interviewed Josh Reynolds of Meek’s Lumber about his experience and tips for keeping new hires safe. Garrett Benskin and Mark Woodward (Missouri Employers Mutual) discuss and then share the interview.
Listen to this interview on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.
Hi and welcome to the WorkSAFE Podcast. I’m Garrett Benskin, here with Mark Woodward, who’s our senior trainer in the Safety and Risk Services Department at MEM. How are you today, Mark?
I’m good. Appreciate the invitation to do this, Garrett.
Thank you for joining us today on this episode. We’ll be discussing new hire safety and hear from one of our policyholders that I met with last week, Meek’s Lumber, on how they train their new hires to help reduce the risk of injury.
Mark, we recently did a new hire email series, and one of the statistics we shared was that 30 percent of our severe injuries over the past five years have involved a new hire. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think when you look at new hire trends, business owners are trying to get work done. They’ve got a lot of projects – they’ve got enough projects to warrant investing the capital and payroll into hiring somebody. When we hire somebody, we’ve got work for them to do, so I think it’s natural that when we bring somebody on we try to cover some basic paperwork and then get them to work. There really isn’t a whole lot of time for training somebody and educating them. It’s just about heating the seat and getting work done.
Now going back to statistics, the three top ways to reduce injuries are to hire right – and what I mean by that is making sure that the employee that you’re hiring actually has the skillset that it takes to do that job safely. A newer program that’s out there in the industry is POET (post offer employment testing), which runs some of these new hire prospectives through a physical training that mimics the motions and activities that they’ll do on the job, to hopefully highlight any discrepancies in their health condition that might present a problem later. And then as you mentioned, the training portion of it. We’ll come back to hiring right and identifying hazards at another time, but today I wanted to chat about new hires and the safety training they receive. Do you find that a lot of new hires just aren’t being trained correctly or thoroughly when it comes to safety?
Absolutely, yeah. I don’t know if I would call it an epidemic; I just think it’s bad habits of a lot of employers over time. We just get them in here and to get to work as soon as possible. And I understand that we have a lot of work to do. We have customers, we have production demands, but I’m telling you: we really need to improve the time we spend with our new people, because the losses and the injuries have real effects downstream on profitability. It causes work comp costs to go up, it causes regulators like OSHA to come in. It’s a real problem when a new hire is injured. We just have to start spending more time with them.
What I would recommend for any business owner is to take a couple of hours to go out on a job site with a new hire. Go out on a production line, look at the machines, explain documented safety rules to them and have them signed. Get a post-offer, pre-employment drug screen performed on the employee; they need to be drug and alcohol free when they start the job. Spend some extra time reviewing safety rules. If there’s personal protective equipment that’s needed or specific safety rules with a machine, take some time to review those.
Safety is not common sense. It takes training, and there are a lot of employees who don’t have a mechanical aptitude: they can’t just figure out the equipment. They’re trying to impress people and move fast, and they’re getting themselves hurt in the process.
We just need to spend more time reviewing the basics: drug-free workplace, written safety rules, requiring personal protective equipment, taking some extra time on the job site. I don’t think that new hire onboarding needs to be super complicated. You just need to spend more quality time and document the time that you spend with new hires.
And you know, this whole time we’ve been talking about what a company can do for safety training and to instill a safety culture in new employees. Let’s flip it around a little bit: say you’re a new employee on the job, and you see that there’s a lack of safety training in that company. Or maybe you’re a seasoned employee who notices a lack of training. How would you recommend broaching that conversation with management?
We really we really encourage communication. You know, foremen and managers are focused on getting the job done. They want employees to get out there and get to work. What new hires really need is an avenue to actually voice a complaint, suggestion or improvement. That’s something that I would absolutely want make clear to my new hires: if something’s wrong, come tell me. A new hire may have experience from another industry or another construction crew, and may have some good ideas that can help a company grow.
A lot of new hires are timid. They’re new; they don’t really know people. If I were a new hire on the job site, the first thing I’d do is protect myself and make sure that I’m working safely with the tools and equipment in my hands. If I see equipment that is damaged or unsafe I’m going to mention it to the boss and see what management says. At that point, if they blow me off or tell me to use it anyway, I would take a serious look around, because that may not be the right employer for me if I can’t talk to them about safety issues.
If I bring up a safety issue that’s clearly going to get myself or somebody hurt and they send me back to work – for one, that’s illegal from an OSHA standpoint. But two, maybe this isn’t the right place for me to work. What employers need to understand is that the job market right now is super tight. If you don’t keep your employees safe and happy at your place of employment, they’re going to leave and get a job somewhere else. Everybody on the block needs good help and if you’re not treating your employees right, they’re going to walk off.
As a manager, I would create that culture of communication. I would encourage new hires to talk to you, to bring up safety issues, and to use their experience to help grow the company. As a new hire, remember that there’s no sense in getting yourself hurt. We don’t want you working for an unsafe employer because that’s not the right answer, and if you feel that you’re put in a life-and-death situation or a limb-threatening situation – you don’t have to do that. It’s illegal, for one, but maybe you can seek a better place to work.
I agree one hundred percent. With that, let’s jump right into the discussion I had with Josh Reynolds of Meek’s Lumber recently.
Case study with Meek’s Lumber
To start us out, go ahead and introduce yourself, tell us what your title is here at Meek’s, and give us a little background.
Sure. My name is Josh Reynolds; I’m the safety coordinator at Meek’s. I’ve been in this position for about eight years – I’ve worked for Meek’s for almost 13 years. I started out as a co-op and I worked in the lumber yard. I drove trucks, drove forklifts, and did a lot of the heavy jobs out there. I wanted to, honestly. I just liked it. I worked in the warehouses and got a good feel for all that stuff. I was gone for a brief period of time, doing a lot of driver development stuff, and then came back into the company in a safety role, handling all the different facets of safety. I don’t really focus in one, I focus in all of it: whatever comes up is the fire I fight that day.
Absolutely. You mentioned that you started as a co-op. For our listeners who aren’t familiar with that terminology, can you fill them in a little bit?
Yeah, that’s our term for an internship. We do a co-op program, and it’s a great program. We hire college students; we work with their schedules in a flexible program. It’s a really good opportunity to get your feet wet in a lot of different areas. Basically, you can go from retail to IT to sales management to working outside in the yard driving trucks. The really neat thing about it is that if you work out in the yard, and let’s say you’re going into construction but you’ve never operated equipment, it is an amazing place to get a feel for that. We train you and help you get your CDL. That’s where I got mine and a lot of my training, so I picked up a lot of good information just doing that. We’re very involved in that process.
There are a lot of long-term employees here who got to Meek’s through the co-op program. What we try to do is invest into the employee early on, and then help them grow. Eventually, they realize, “Hey, this is a good company; I want to stay here.” There are a lot of us in this office and a lot of yards who developed through that program.
That program’s for college students. Do you target certain fields of study or is it open to everybody?
Both. Especially here in the office, there are specific industries we do try to target. I know at our design centers we try to get a lot of our engineering students, but for the most part we hire different backgrounds. If you take a look at our managers, we have everything from criminal science to conservation management degrees. You get to get outside a lot, and people who really like to do that just kind of fall in love with the organization.
It sounds like a win-win for both parties: you guys get to mentor some future employees. You said you had quite a number of employees who worked up through the co-op program. But on the flip side, you’re doing them a service by exposing them to some things that they haven’t had access to. Whether they stay with your company or not, you’re instilling part of your safety culture that they can take to a different employer.
I know construction and retail can both have high turnover rates. How is your turnover rate and how does it compare to other industries?
It’s high. I mean, it’s just like you said: it’s the kind of demography have in the industry. Let’s be honest, some of these jobs are really hard. That’s one of the reasons we really try to stay in front of a lot of people, because turnover is high. We try to really make sure our management, myself, everyone is aware of our turnover rate and of the new faces in the yard. Do those new faces know what’s going on? I don’t think that’s something that’s ever going to change, unless the industry has a drastic change as a whole. It’s just part of what we do.
And unfortunately, new hires tend to have a high frequency of work comp injuries. What is your onboarding process for new hires to try and get them up the learning curve of the safety culture, instilling safety as a top of mind concept so you can try and avoid those injuries?
One of the things that I try to really focus on is involving the supervisors in that role. If those supervisors aren’t invested in properly training and making sure the employees know exactly what they’re doing, they’re going to get hurt. It’s going to fail. What we try to do is make sure that when they’re going through the paperwork process – and there’s a lot of paperwork. There’s a lot of stuff to sign, and you’re signing a lot of safety documents and obviously as you’re signing those we’re pretty sure you’re not reading them. Which is okay, I mean, you get a lot of paperwork and you’re going to start pencil whipping a lot of stuff.
We understand that, and you have to be realistic with that, because that’s where a lot of companies say “But we had them sign the paperwork!” Well, that’s great, but did you really make sure that they understood what it was that they were signing? At Meek’s we’ve really tried to ensure that when the supervisors are handing them their paperwork, they’re also taking them out there to show them the saw or truck or forklift, and making sure that they really understand what it does and how it works.
That can be tough. Supervisors get a lot of new employees. Part of what I do is travel around and ask, “Hey, who are the new guys here?” And just double-checking the process and making sure that the new hires are really understanding what they’re doing.
I think you hit on a key point. For new hires, that onboarding process, not just the safety aspect of it, can be information overload. They’re in a new space learning new skills, and safety is just one aspect of that. I think there are a lot of companies that, like you said, put the effort into getting them to sign a piece of paper. But maybe on the back end, they don’t follow that up and make sure that they’re giving the new hire the proper tools and training that it takes to really have success in the workplace and prevent those injuries from happening.
Going along with that, if you were to shed some light on that process from your experience to another company that doesn’t have that formalized safety training, what would be the first win that you would recommend for them to try?
A follow-up program! That is a very big asset, because it not only reminds the employee but also reminds the supervisor. You get the paperwork done and go through the training during that first two weeks, which gives the employee time to learn about the products and their role. After that, it’s important to just make contact with the individual and make sure they know what they’re doing.
I think you’re exactly right with the follow-up. It’s important not to just onboard a new employee and then assume that they get it, assume that they understand what all they need to do and what they need to be thinking about on a daily basis. I think that would lend to the sustainability of your safety program too, wouldn’t it?
Yeah, and that’s part of what I do: follow up on a lot of things, which adds some longevity to it. It helps new hires understand that safety’s not just something we do for 30 minutes and then we’re done. It’s something that we think about every day. It’s a part of our process. I think once they start seeing that in 30 days we follow up on this, in 60 or 90 days we follow up on this… they start seeing the investment in safety.
Then, when the safety results start improving, they see that this is a long-term thing that they need to pay attention to and incorporate into their jobs. It’s not just something that we have to do just to make the safety guy happy. It’s part of what we do.
That’s one of the big things I try to get our supervisors to communicate to new employees, that we have a standard. When you come here to work for us, we do this the right way and if you don’t want to do this the right way, then maybe this isn’t the place you need to be. That may be a harsh statement but I think it’s a reality. When you have employees come into work, you need to be very upfront and honest with them. If you are, they start to buy into it because they can see that you care about them. You know them, and you want them to keep their fingers and toes.
Setting that expectation from the outset is very important, and having that safety culture ingrained in your employees for however long they work with you definitely keeps work comp claims down, injuries down, and costs down for the company.
It sounds like you spend quite a bit of time at all of Meek’s locations. How do you think that plays into building that safety culture? Do you think that keeps things top of mind because you’re present more, so when employees see the safety coordinator they don’t think “We have to whip into shape real quick”?
I do. I think where a lot of safety professionals fail is by staying in the office. In my mind, that’s not how the job should work. Being there to answer questions face-to-face, even if it’s for five minutes, sets the tone that somebody really cares about what’s going on. I spent a good four or five years doing some pretty heavy traveling. My pickup truck was my office more often than not.
But I think it really helps, because the other side to that is that when you’re going to be so hands-on, you really need to know what you’re talking about. I know how to drive a Class A CDL with air brake endorsement. I know how to drive every piece of equipment we’ve got here – I know how everything works. If you don’t, that’s okay, but you should probably get some pretty good research into it before you start traveling to job sites, because if you go out there with these guys and you don’t know what you’re talking about, your credibility is shot.
Sometimes I feel like that’s why a lot of safety professionals don’t go out there, but if you’re going to teach safety, you should probably know how it works in practice instead of just reading a manual. There are always ins and outs that go with some of the machinery that – you may have to be pretty creative to come up with a safe way to make it work. I feel like being there with the employee, showing them that you’re not there to beat them up, but that you genuinely care….
There are times that we might have a problem that we can’t resolve today. We’ll resolve it in a week; I just work with the supervisors and let them come up with ideas and solutions. One of the big ways I’ve found to get them to buy into it is to let them come up with ideas. Let’s get a hands-on approach to things. I think it is vital to get out there, get your boots on the ground and meet the people. Know their names and know their jobs. Otherwise, it’s like anything: if you’re going to invest in something, you want to be a part of it, and if employees aren’t feeling like they’re a part of it, they won’t understand why they should do it.
A lot of my guys are hands-on and like to tinker with stuff, so I give them tasks and ask for volunteers to work on solutions to safety problems we’re having. It really gets them involved. We pull employees from those specific areas and ask them for their ideas, because they have some great ideas and they can really think out of the box. It’s really interesting to see what their perspective is, because it may be something that I don’t even have a bearing on, and they hit it on the head. If we try an idea and it works, I can take it to another location. Then I make sure to come back and say, “Hey, you remember that idea that you had? Well, we’re using that over here now and it works great.” So they see that it’s not just this idea that they threw out that nobody listened to.
The safety committees work really well. On the retail side we have to handle it in a different way. We still get the supervisors and everybody involved in safety as much as possible. We have 42 locations and I’m safety coordinator for all of them, so any way I can get some extra help, I’m in.
You hit on a key point: by involving employees and letting them come up with some of ideas, they have a vested interest in it. I know other policyholders that we’ve spoken to do that, too. They involve their employees in their safety initiatives.
We’re adding a new segment at the end of our podcast where we ask for quick tips; stuff that we maybe don’t cover throughout the podcast. If you could give somebody a quick tip on how to be more safety-conscious in their business, what would it be?
Care about your people. I mean, genuinely care about these guys. They mean the world to me. I would not have my job if they didn’t have theirs, so I’m invested in what they’re doing. You have to look at it that way. I think a lot of people take for granted the guy who’s out there driving a forklift. Well, that guy is moving all that material out there so we can have profit, so I can drive out here to tell him what he’s doing wrong!
But you have to be really invested in what you’re doing and have compassion for what you’re doing. Safety is one of those things where sometimes I think people lose compassion, and lose what it is that they’re really trying to achieve. I have guys who could not come back home to their families, doing the jobs that they do. Or they could have an impairment and not ever be able to enjoy their family again. So I really try to care about each person, one on one, trying to make sure those guys come home safe to their families.
I’ve been those guys. I know how hard those jobs are; I’ve been hurt doing those jobs. I know the setbacks. I think being in that mindset helps a lot in trying to prevent those injuries. You’ve got to be invested in your people more than your job. You genuinely have to be out there. Then, what happens is that if you invest in safety that way, you start seeing the benefits – your comp claims go down; your company’s more profitable. If you invest in the people who are out there, it’s amazing what will happen.
What we’ve really tried to do is look at safety from the perspective of reaching out to our people. We have a lot of long-term people and we’re a very close company. Although we’re big, everybody generally knows everybody. We consider ourselves a family, so I think that we should act as a family.
I think that’s a great way to wrap up this interview. Thank you for joining us today, Josh.
That was a great discussion I had with Josh down at Meek’s Lumber. Let’s debrief – Mark, what do you think makes Meek’s great when it comes to their new hire training?
Well, I know that for years Meek’s has always made a good attempt at getting in front of new hires, being out there with them and keeping an eye on them. They’re really great at documenting their new hire expectations, and we helped them develop some materials that they use when they’re onboarding a new hire. Josh does an excellent job at staying out on the road, going to all of their locations to get eyes on the job. Everybody knows him, he knows everybody, and for an organization that has up to 900 employees that’s a big deal! He still has a CDL. He drives trucks; he runs forklifts. He’s grown from a yard worker on up into the safety and HR program, so in my eyes he’s the real deal. He is a really good safety guy because he actually cares.
And that’s what I would recommend to everybody: get out there and see what your employees do. Run the equipment that they run, and learn what they do. You have to be on the road. We see this all time in this industry: we may have a franchise owner that has, say, 25 or 30 Taco Bells in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. One of the first things we ask is how often management gets out to each store location to work with the employees. If they say that they’re out there once a week, or they have management there all the time, that gives us a sense of comfort that they’re watching the employees, trying to help and make things better. That’s versus a business owner that says, “Well, you know, I don’t really get out there that often.” That worries me because that’s a lack of management oversight. That’s a problem. And we’ll see a loss history that corresponds with that – it will be out of control.
Josh and the Meek’s team are doing a great job with safety. Their loss history is dropping like a rock. They’re successful every year. They worked very hard on their safety program, and I think that’s the key, just taking the time to get out to see what their employees are doing. Show that they care, keep an eye on things, and ensure the quality and safety on the jobsite.
I agree. Josh and I spoke about it in the interview, but caring about the employees is key. We’ve talked about that before on the podcast, that some of the smaller businesses really value their employees and look at their employees as an extension of their own family. This goes to show that Meek’s Lumber – they’ve got 42 locations and 900 employees. A business doesn’t have to be a small mom-and-pop shop to really value their employees and care about them like family.
It can be widespread, across multiple states, multiple locations, hundreds of employees. That really bodes well for not only safety and mitigating any injuries, but it would have to add to the value that the employee sees in that company, don’t you agree?
Oh, absolutely. It’s all about our relationships. We talk in retail environments about relationships with customers, and keeping them happy and coming back. It’s the same way with employees. We’re not going to be able to do anything without our employees, and if we don’t make an attempt to treat them like human beings that are in our family… it’s not that hard just be real with people, be honest with them, and communicate.
You’ll see positive results. I don’t think it has to be very complicated. Just be real with people. And Meek’s is doing that. They’re with their employees and I think it’s working out just fine.
Mark, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. Really enjoyed the insights that you added to what Josh spoke about.
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