It doesn’t matter if it’s about driving a van in the frantic Indian traffic or using helmets and protective gloves in a plant. Lars Eklöf, chairing the safety council at Atlas Copco, explains why a sustainable safety attitude has to be integrated into every part of the company’s operations.
Lars Eklöf - President of Atlas Copco’s MVi tools and assembly system division
“I climbed with my oldest son the other day, and I made a mistake when I tied myself in. That mistake was discovered when we did the partner check. Processes like that are not there to control you, they are there to support you.” Lars Eklöf
As President of Atlas Copco’s MVI Tools and Assembly System division, Lars Eklöf has 1 600 co-workers and employees in Tool Management Centers all over the world. Many of them are service staff or sales people constantly on the road traveling to and from customers, on sales visits or performing customer training and services, such as tool calibrations and repairs. Making sure that they, and all the other 15 000 or so Atlas Copco employees whose workplace is in a car or on a motorbike, are as safe as possible is just as important as making sure that helmets, gloves and protective glasses are worn during certain operations in a plant. That’s why Eklöf’s focus is to make safety a top priority in every single part of the company’s operations and for every one of its more than 40 000 employees. Some areas are easier to target than others. Routines for handling certain tools can be the same all over the globe. The same goes for regulations involving protective equipment. But every customer installation or location may provide a different challenge. And everyone knows that driving a service van in Germany can be very different from getting to a customer plant in Malaysia on a motorbike.
“We can’t change that,” Eklöf says. “But as we know that a sales person in Mexico or India takes a bigger risk while going to a customer than while staying in the office, we can make sure the vehicle is safe and that the routine for making every job as safe as possible is a priority in every situation.”
His ambition is that safety will always be a main concern, regardless of location, cultural differences or a person’s position within the company. A sustainable safety program is much more than a certified Safety Management System. And it is much more than scorecards and figures for accident and incident reporting. In the past few years Atlas Copco has invested a lot of time and energy to build a culture of safety and create awareness of the importance of both the physical environment and changes in behavior. In spite of this safety focus campaign, the accident charts are no longer decreasing at the same rate as previously. Current statistics show an accident rate of five for every one million hours worked.
“That certainly leaves room for improvement,” Eklöf says. “But I would say that there are a number of reasons why the accident charts are leveling out. When we started our campaign we could see the number of accidents and incidents increasing. That didn’t mean we had more accidents. It was the reporting that increased as accidents became more discussable. What we see now is probably the correct number and the new starting point for reaching our zero-accident target. Scorecards and accident charts are important, as they show where the company is getting results. Smaller incidents that people previously didn’t care to report are now noted, and this has led to an overall better safety culture" Eklöf says.
“But to succeed in creating a sustainable change in the approach to safety,” he says, “I believe that safety has to be an attitude, a way of thinking that is deeply rooted in everyone and in everything we do. Scorecards and charts are only one tool in that process.”
The mission for the advisory Safety, Health, Environment and Quality Council, which Eklöf chairs, is to find best practice in the respective areas. Forming the new sustainable safety program is a high priority. The aim of the program is zero work-related accidents in all operations. “We train people when they are brand new, but you are equally at risk when you have worked for 20 years. Most accidents actually happen when you do something you have done many times before.”
“We have to look out for each other to make sure nobody gets hurt – not today and not tomorrow.”
What is working safely to you?
“Obviously, safety is about preventing accidents from happening,” Eklöf says. “But it is also making sure that people can work on a long-term basis without getting hurt. It’s not OK to cut your hands or fingers during a moment of lack of concentration, and it’s equally not OK to damage your hands from using a vibrating tool that had a faulty installation, something that might not show up until many years later.”
In the showroom in Atlas Copco’s Group Center in Stockholm, Sweden, the walls are lined with worktops and tools of all sizes and dimensions. Safety is built into every piece of equipment on display. Eklöf picks up a nutrunner with a reaction bar strong enough to manage a ton. That power could make you lose several fingers if you grabbed the reaction bar instead of the proper handle during operation, a risk the designer anticipated and minimized at the drawing board by giving the nutrunner a double trigger, forcing you to use the correct grip.
“Safety is linked to everything we do,” Eklöf says. “As we are experts on our equipment, we also have a responsibility toward our customers. That involves every step, from the drawing board to making sure our tools are used in the safest possible way. Customers are obviously responsible for their own plants, but we have to make sure we deliver tools that are safe to use, no matter whether they are brand new or coming back from service. Our responsibility is handed over when we have told the customer how to use them, but sometimes you realize that’s not enough.” Eklöf describes a visit to an auto rickshaw factory a few months ago.
“We had technicians on site where they were making these three wheelers, and while walking around the factory I could clearly see that the customer wasn’t using our tools safely,” Eklöf says. “They had fixed the sockets in a way that made the equipment unsafe to use for the operator. Are we responsible when it wasn’t our technician who had mounted the tool? Legally we are not, but morally I think it is our responsibility to inform the customer to make sure the mistake is rectified.”
Atlas Copco is a global company. Would you say the perception of safety is different depending on country and culture?
“Yes and no,” Eklöf says. “The tragedy is the same if an accident happens to a mining worker in Peru or to a factory worker in the Netherlands. Legally there might be differences, but once again, morally I see no difference. But we have to acknowledge that there are cultural differences in the approach to preventing accidents. I would be naïve to expect our technicians in all markets to walk up to a customer engineer and tell him that the equipment is not being used in a safe way. We need to encourage our technicians to find a way to tackle this. We are the experts on the equipment, and the problem has to be solved. We have to respect cultural differences, but we also have to work with customers to help limit risks and find ways to do so in each cultural context.”
The biggest overall challenge, he says, is to work on the attitude, to make safety a priority for everyone. “I believe we have reached that level on the work floor, but there is always a better way to do things, and it’s essential that we continue our work for improvement,” Eklöf says. “Safety is all in the details.” He makes a comparison with rock climbing, a pastime he has pursued for many years.
“As a climber you literally hold your friend’s life in your hands,” he says. “No matter how long you have climbed together, you still have a routine where you double-check each other. I climbed with my oldest son the other day, and I made a mistake when I tied myself in. That mistake was discovered when we did the partner check. Processes like that are not there to control you, they are there to support you. No matter how experienced you are or how many times you have done something, you can still make mistakes. When you have safety as an attitude, you realize what the consequences are. The process is there to limit the risks.”