Management & Operations

Shop Safety Builds a Solid Foundation for Operations

Posted on August 13, 2007 by Jack Burkert

Ask anyone who has tried. Operating a passenger transportation business, profitably, is a challenge. But after personally making perhaps a thousand consulting or survey visits to fleet operators across the country, one thing has become very clear — operating the fleet maintenance shop that supports that transportation business may be an even bigger challenge.

The shop manager is faced with technical staffing problems, with good mechanics in short supply, and the situation isn’t getting any better. Additionally, sorting out how financial resources should be applied and how to keep parts and supplies on hand in just the right quantity needed, and available the day before you need them, also intensifies the challenge. And let us not forget the issues of competence, quality and operating in an efficient manner while maintaining records of every task. These issues and more can make operating a shop a daunting undertaking.

Is there help out there for the belabored shop manager? My experience indicates that there is, and it may come from an unexpected quarter. What I have learned is that the successful maintenance shop is one that supports the safety needs of the work force.

Program time for safety
If there was ever a lesson learned the hard way, it is that good housekeeping, a foundation for personal safety in the shop, doesn’t just happen. The same goes for safety meetings, those ten-minute safety “tool box” talks. Both of these initiatives — each priceless in its own way — demand a commitment of time.

Every worker in every industry has learned that time is the enemy! It escapes, runs out, races and expires. And as time passes, the easiest thing in the world to do is to let it take your clean shop and your motivated employees with it. Shop managers simply have to plan on some downtime, for both the technical staff and themselves, to assure that vital things get done. This is called planning, and that is one of management’s primary duties.

Some shop managers see “safety stuff” as an occasional event or, in worst cases, an intrusion. They clearly are missing a key point. Management action, in an effort to create and operate a safe shop, has benefits that extend beyond safety into the realms of competence, commitment, contentment, efficiency and quality.

For example, it is well known in the safety community that poor housekeeping in a maintenance shop — clutter, debris, loose parts, hoses and wires snaking their way across the garage floor, and everything in need of a good clean-up — leads directly to costly injuries.

Further, a cluttered and disorganized shop also impacts how employees interact and feel about their company and their workplace. Such a shop will not produce top quality work simply because the message sent by a disorganized workplace is that “sloppy” is just fine with those in leadership. Quality mechanics, sensing this negative atmosphere, then disappear to find new employment, replaced by those who find a debris-strewn workplace quite to their liking. As a result, management’s negligence in allowing a shop to remain cluttered and chaotic negatively affects work quality, employee turnover and, of course, safety.

Safety as top priority
Acting on behalf of safety is ultimately the better way. Shop accidents and injuries take a human toll, create a financial burden and wreak havoc on schedules. And with most injuries being preventable in nature, this chaos is not necessary. And then there are the legal burdens — poorly kept shops with ill-maintained equipment used by an untrained staff are illegal. Some might call them unethical and, certainly, such practices are bad business. Every employer needs to resolve these issues, not only for the direct safety benefits they offer, but also to reduce mechanic turnover, operate a more effective shop, and build morale and quality of work.

Where does shop safety begin? In classic safety practice it begins with “engineering,” where hazards are managed by making changes to the physical layout of equipment in the workplace. Indeed, this is a critical step but, as you might imagine, there is more to do.

Most accidents and injuries can be partially attributed to a human failing. For example, placing guards on a bench grinder to minimize flying debris and making a face shield or safety glasses available are both required by law. But shop employees sometimes remove those machine guards and fail to wear personal protective equipment. Human factors can, and will, trump prevention steps. Management must actively implement employee training and maintain consistent supervisory follow up.

Many years ago, I managed a shop. And, yes, one day OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) came calling and taught me a thing or two about safety and the violation process. I also fought the “Battle of the Safety Glasses” with mechanics every day, but we at the shop believed in safety and the benefits it offered.

Ultimately, that employment led me to a life as a safety advisor to fleet operations. This short biography is offered only to assure the reader that I’ve been there and done that. Using that experience, as well as that of a safety advisor a thousand times over, let me offer some further insights into where you might get the maximum benefit for your safety efforts.

Regular inspections
There is no substitute for a shop inspection program. Begin with a third party evaluation. Your worker’s compensation insurance carrier may offer this service, but if you want to hold them at arm’s length, hire a third party to come in and look around. Outside inspectors won’t see everything, but they will see most things that could present a safety concern and can offer some solid insights into what to do about them and why.

Once that process is complete, establish a routine of quarterly shop inspections. Supervisors and technical staff should work together to take a hard look at the workplace, fix what can be fixed and offer suggestions to management for desirable improvements or changes. And, by the way, keep written records of your inspections!

Customize training
Making believers of your staff is not always an easy assignment. Technicians are self-directed, individualistic employees who often have a sense that their way is the better way. To get any benefit from the time invested in training demands excellence in training technique.

Companies can go through the motions and deliver OSHA-mandated training on personal protective equipment and hazard communication, among other required topics. They create legitimate attendance records and can check that compliance block off their safety checklist. The only real question is, “Did anyone learn anything?” Good training includes personalization, illustration, motivation and discussion. These attributes are usually not attainable by just having employees watch a DVD.

Clear directives
Employees will usually give management what they want. If showing up on time for work is a big issue and much is made of failures to do so, eventually employees sort themselves out and either get the message or depart. In developing and exercising safety policies, however, management is not always as clear and consistent in delivering the message, “This is what is required.”

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is usually the subject of mandatory training, but PPE training only sets a direction. If a supervisor sees but ignores a PPE violation, for any reason, it delivers a contradictory message, one that is more immediate and directly affects the experience of the employee.

Safety is ultimately a matter of priorities. Unless all levels of management believe safety to be a primary concern and that violations can never be ignored, employees may never “get it.”

Take action
Your initiatives in safety are dividend producers. A safe shop is a fundamental part of creating a productive shop. A safe shop is a foundation for motivated, contented employees. And a safe shop gets work done as planned, within the cost boundaries every organization must have. Getting started is the hardest part — a commitment to begin, to learn and to improve is how to start making safety in your shop a reality.

Jack Burkert is a 30-year veteran of fleet safety and management, currently engaged in safety consulting from his home in Maryland. He may be contacted at

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