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The Vital Safety Lesson for Employers in Tracy Morgan's Crash

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The fatal crash that seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed fellow passenger James McNair has surfaced an important discussion about federal trucking guidelines that should prompt every business leader in America to ask, “Could something like this have happened in my company?”

Indeed every business faces safety risks and one of managers' most important responsibilities is to create an environment and a culture that minimize them.

Reports indicate that the Walmart employee and driver of the tractor-trailer involved in the crash may have been awake more than 24 hours.

Walmart issued a statement noting, that the driver had been “operating within the federal hours of service regulations. ... If it's determined that our truck caused the accident, Walmart will take full responsibility. Safety is our absolute highest priority, but that is no comfort whatsoever to the families and friends who are suffering today.”

If Walmart proves that the driver had been working within his 14-hour workday limit according to federal hours-of-service regulations, does that make the event any less tragic? What if it turns out he had been awake 12 hours before reporting to work for a legal 14-hour workday? Should employers be expected to know what their employees are doing off-hours?

Business leaders must learn from this horrible accident. Since no company is immune to safety-related incidents, employers should make every effort to prevent them. The best way to do so is to empower employees to make the right decisions -- especially when no one is looking.

Here are a few practical ideas to accomplish this: 

Related: What Every Entrepreneur Should Know About Worker Safety

1. Focus on both individual and organizational accountability. Habitually when something goes wrong, companies perform a root-cause investigation, asking, “What happened? What malfunctioned? Who was associated with this failure?” It’s easy to blame a frontline employee or a supervisor for an accident.

But the inquiry usually fails short of examining the underlying systemic process or the breakdown at an organizational level.

Examining the differences between individual and organizational accountability is crucial.

Individual accountability relates to the acts or omissions of an individual. Take an employee who is trained in a given process but who unilaterally fails to adhere to procedures. The employee may improvise in contravention of policy, cutting corners to save time or money, causing something to backfire.

In contrast, organizational accountability stems from an act or omission committed by the company. The results usually affect the organization as a whole and involve a lack of communication or training about operating procedures, faulty or nonexistent auditing of systems, a lack of institutional memory (so that a mistake is repeated) or a devaluing of a preventative culture.  But the inquiry usually fails short of examining the underlying systemic process or the breakdown at an organizational level.

Related: 6 Ways to Improve Workplace Safety Without Going Broke

Safety is not a priority. It's a core value. In discussions about Tracy Morgan accident, debate will rage over whether a negligent employee is at fault or if a defect existed in Walmart’s processes or management.

But leaders who truly want to prevent deadly disasters must actively engage in promoting a culture of prevention from the top. Managers must live, breathe and communicate these values.  

Priorities and values are often confused in most organizations. Values define and bind organizations together, drive decisions in every interaction and never change. Priorities are tasks requiring action that must be managed daily and that frequently shift in a given situation.

Values should always guide priorities. Managers must ensure that the organization's values are never compromised. Safety -- and safe behaviors -- must be nonnegotiable values within a culture of prevention. In a safety culture, a fatigued driver is empowered to stop the vehicle and rest, even if he or she had hours remaining in the workday.

Behavior trumps rules and regulations. Remember, the answer to safety questions can’t always be found in a handbook.

Fortunes are spent on handbooks that only a few read and or absorb. The real training and development occurs when teams work together and are guided by shared values. It’s about sharing what happened -- and why -- and holding one another accountable. Employees should lock the cellphone in the glove compartment so they're not tempted to text or email while driving. Desired behaviors should be promoted and enforced.

When talking to employees about a safety critical issue, managers must make the message very personal and not have a theoretical or regulatory discussion. Hit people in the heart. 

When mangers speak to their teams about this accident, they should ask, “Is this the fate we desire? Does anyone of us want to carry this burden? If not, then let's show up to work every day with the firm commitment to prevent such an outcome at all cost."

Related: Is America Too 'Safe' for Innovation? Or Will Driverless Cars Ever Have Their Day?

Brian Fielkow

Written By

Corporate culture and management advisor Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies. With a doctorate in law from Northwestern University School of Law, he serves as owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a logistics company in Houston that specializes in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight.