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Timothy Little, Ph.D., CSP, is safety administrator for the City of Surprise, AZ and president of ASSE’s Arizona Chapter. In this interview, Little explains how Surprise invests in safety and outlines the ways in which he and other Arizona Chapter members are helping those SH&E professionals who are facing tough times in the current economy.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as safety administrator for the City of Surprise, AZ.

I have been employed full-time as a safety professional in the municipal government sector for nearly 20 years and was involved part-time in the volunteer fire service for 10 years before that. I hold an M.A. in organizational management and a Ph.D. in educational leadership. I have been an adjunct instructor for nearly 25 years in the areas of emergency response, safety and leadership.

As safety administrator for the City of Surprise, I am responsible for developing, implementing and managing a comprehensive safety program to protect employees, reduce risks and maintain compliance with regulatory agencies. I provide technical support to city departments and assist with needs analysis, curriculum development and training. I am available as a resource for any SH&E needs that arise.

I am also responsible for the dissemination of information to the various departments that will guide them with their regulatory requirements, training needs and compliance activities. I do this through an internal website that currently has 5,000+ pages of data accessible to employees, supervisors and managers alike.

In what ways does the City of Surprise invest in safety?

City staff includes a risk manager and a safety administrator, which is a significant investment in itself. Beyond that, there is a strong commitment to training and education, which represents an investment of employee and instructor time. In addition, the city is willing to invest in the tools and equipment necessary to train employees and to keep employees safe while performing their tasks. This varies from traffic control devices to electrical tools to gas meters, fall protection and typical PPE needs. In addition, police and fire departments benefit from specialty equipment and tools related to their responsibilities.

During unstable economic times, municipalities may be inclined to cut back on safety. What measures have you taken within the past year to help keep safety at the forefront for Surprise, while also helping to maintain or reduce costs?

The most noticeable action on my part has been to increase my visibility. I am the type who tends to just do the job and not call attention to myself or to what I have done. With increased scrutiny, I thought it would be best to be a bit more assertive in making my actions and accomplishments more apparent. I have also implemented detailed program auditing procedures that call attention to program needs as well as ensure compliance with some of the most critical standards. To help control costs, I am conducting more training internally, as opposed to using outside resources, and have increased the frequency of internal audits in some cases.

As safety administrator for Surprise, what safety, health and environmental (SH&E) hazards, risks and exposures must you address? Does Surprise present any unique hazards, risks or exposures because of its location, climate, etc.?

One of the best parts of this job is the variety that it brings. The departments all have a wide variety of tasks and a wide assortment of equipment with which to do their tasks. In a single day, I may go from addressing hazardous waste disposal to overweight garbage trucks to lead management on the police shooting range and wind up with reclassifying permit-required confined spaces. Every day is different.

Some issues unique to our locale include stringent dust control regulations, the threat of Valley Fever and having hundreds of employees working outside in 100°F-plus temperatures.

How has safety investment impacted Surprise financially? What kind of return on investment has Surprise seen as a result of its safety efforts?

Putting numbers to safety performance is difficult to do accurately and to be able to support the numbers with factual evidence. I always remember early in my career stating that every motor vehicle accident cost a certain dollar amount, an amount I obtained from National Safety Council statistics. My supervisor said, “Prove it. Show me the numbers for our accidents that support that claim.” One must be careful in applying general statistics to costs.

Has there been a return on investment in the City of Surprise? Our loss ratio is around 45%, and our experience modifier is around 0.8. There is always room for improvement, and we continue to develop and implement programs to target our greatest risks. A 3-year focused effort on driver safety resulted in less preventable accidents and a savings on losses. We always seek better ways to quantify the returns.

How does a city like Surprise calculate its risks and losses?

We use many of the standard measurements for losses, such as loss ratio, total claims cost, claims in litigation and number of days open. In the worker injury area, we look at total recordable incident rate, lost workday case rate and severity rate. We make many more internal comparisons to look at historical trends and to determine responses to focused programs. We also prepare loss reports for major departments and provide them with a 5-year statistical analysis of losses and injuries with trend analysis and recommendations for follow-up action.

Based on your experience, how can municipalities make the best use of the risk management/insurance function?

The model that we follow has the functions of SH&E intricately tied into the functions of risk management. Three primary options we use are:

1. Avoid the risk. This may take the form of engineering controls or finding a way to not do a task at all.
2. Finance the risk. If the risk is determined to be monetary (as opposed to human) we may choose to insure, self-insure or use contractual transfer.
3. Control the risk. Develop, implement and require safe work practices, other administrative controls or through the use of PPE.

All of these options are done in a cooperative effort between SH&E and risk management.

What kind of SH&E training do Surprise’s public works employees receive? How are these workers protected while on the job?

The public works department’s training needs vary greatly. The department includes functions, such as water treatment, wastewater treatment, street maintenance, sanitation, vehicle maintenance and facility maintenance. As a result, training needs include most of the topics found in the OSHA 1910 and 1926 regulations.

To protect workers, we put much consideration into how to change or modify tasks to reduce or eliminate hazards and in some cases use risk avoidance by contracting certain tasks. The old standard of engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE works well in this environment.

What advice do you have for other municipalities that wish to further invest safety but do not know where to start? 
I suggest they start by conducting thorough research and analysis of their losses and exposures. Workers’ compensation claim data and loss ratios can provide some insight into their losses (and are an important part of the analysis), but exposures and risks are more difficult to determine. Too often, the impact of attitudes and culture is overlooked. I suggest that the more complete the analysis, the more accurate the answer. In addition, the analysis can then be used to develop a roadmap of where the organization needs to go.

How does a person in your position convince a municipality that investing in safety is the smart thing to do?

There is cost in terms of monetary cost, human cost and regulatory cost. Unfortunately, the easy way is to hang the threat of regulatory cost over their heads, and many will try and use this as the primary motivator to do something. Yes, that threat exists, but long before the “price” of regulatory action becomes painful, the cost in terms of human suffering has already been paid. To sell safety on monetary terms, it is necessary to show how working safely increases productivity, profit or efficiency, and although that can be difficult, it can be done.

How are you helping to promote safety to children and teens in the Surprise community?

Responsibility for this falls mostly to our public safety departments, police and fire. Our fire department has programs to teach CPR and AED to the community, a senior outreach program, a Citizens Academy, car seat programs, smoke detector programs, lockbox programs and a community emergency response team. Our police department offers risk assessment programs, a teen leadership academy, vacation watch, fleet watch program and an active citizen’s patrol. For information on additional programs and other departments, visit http://www.surpriseaz.com.

Under your leadership as president of ASSE’s Arizona Chapter, you have helped other SH&E professionals with resume writing and job search strategies. In what other ways are you and your fellow chapter members helping SH&E professionals who are facing tough times?

AZASSE has what I consider an excellent job board on our website. Currently, more than 50 jobs are posted, and they change continuously. Donna Seniuk, who manages the job board, aggressively seeks out opportunities and gets them posted so that our members can easily access them in one place. We recently offered a resume writing class and an interviewing skills class to our members at no charge.

Lastly, we begin each chapter meeting with introductions and encourage members to mention if they are looking for employment or for an employee. We do not have exact statistics, but we know that successful connections have been made during our meetings.

From your perspective, how has the current recession affected the SH&E profession? Do you believe things are improving?

The most obvious impact I have seen is the number of members who are out of work. Many members have also been forced to relocate to find work, so some of our friends and supporters have left us. I hope the economy and job market are improving at least in some areas. Government is in for another tough year or so due to the way revenues are calculated and collected. The challenge for safety professionals in the government sector will be continuing to prove their worth to their organization, as everyone is looking hard at budgets and staffing.

You are experienced in both SH&E and business-related issues. How do you reconcile different philosophies and approaches to safety? 

I have a blend of experience and education that I think complements me as a professional. I have a master’s degree in business, a Ph.D. in education, 20 years’ safety experience plus a CSP certification. The business side of safety must be considered, and education is a critical component of safety and developing a safety culture. My studies in organizational management help me with the change process that is needed but also give me a pragmatic approach to business needs. I have found that various perspectives complement and support each other more than anything.

What are your safety objectives and goals for Surprise for 2010? 

The number one goal is to continue trying to ingrain the concepts of safe work behavior and to continue to break down the beliefs that some risks are unmanageable. There will be a bigger push on program auditing and performance measurement of safety and health programs. Increased focus on driver safety will take place. I will be working hard to promote the fact that safety is even more important when we are trying to maintain the levels of service with decreasing budgets and less people to perform the tasks. Finally, I will continue to build a culture where the goal is not just doing safe work, but being a safe worker.

Timothy F. Little, Ph.D., CSP, has been safety administrator for the City of Surprise, AZ since July 2006. Prior to this position, he worked as a safety analyst II for the City of Phoenix, AZ for almost 2 years and was safety and training coordinator for the City of Bloomington, MN for nearly 15 years. He also has 13 years in the volunteer fire service, retiring as captain and hazardous materials specialist.

Little frequently speaks on leadership and safety, and he is an adjunct professor who develops and teaches university-level leadership classes. He is also president of ASSE’s Arizona chapter.

He holds an M.A. in Organizational Management from Concordia University in St. Paul, MN and a Ph.D. in Educational Administration (Higher Education) from the University of Nebraska.