Safety Talk with Dave Nelson: Thoughts on the Win

Dave Nelson is the president of Sprint Waste Services. He joined in 2012, and during the years since he has seen a significant improvement in the safety culture of the company, even as it has more than doubled in size. With roughly 300 trucks and thousands of pieces of equipment operating in challenging conditions each day to service customers at 14 locations across the Texas–Louisiana Gulf Coast, Nelson is acutely aware of the safety risks Sprint Waste’s employees encounter every day. We sat down with him this week to get his thoughts on the company’s win at the 2019 Houston Safety Excellence Awards.

Sprint Waste Services has a long history of “taking home the hardware” at the Safety Excellence Awards. Does it ever get old to get nominated, let alone to win? Never. It’s a huge honor and accomplishment. About seven years ago, we completely changed our mindset at Sprint Waste, where we really put “safety first.” A lot of companies say it but don’t mean it. We decided we were going to prove it to ourselves through our actions. We focused on safety activities that would drive improvements in our safety statistics, and we decided to target the HBR Safety Excellence Award as an opportunity to showcase our progressing safety culture. In 2015, a group of us really dug in and dedicated tremendous effort to preparing for the “competition.” What it came down to was getting buy-in from our entire company—from the owners and executive team to our operations managers to our drivers and in-plant environmental personnel. Additionally, we improved our documentation processes and employee safety training. Later that year we actually won the 2014 HBR Safety Excellence Award. It was a huge validation for all the hard work we had undertaken. After a year as a mentor, we were eligible again for the 2016 award. Once again, we dedicated resources and time, and amazingly we won again! We figured no matter how hard we tried, we probably wouldn’t win the award three times in a row. However, we decided to give it our best shot, and sure enough we won the 2018 HBR Safety Excellence Award. It’s a tribute to the safety-first culture of all of our employees—as well as a lot of hard work by many individuals—safety managers, operations managers, drivers, mechanics, in-plant environmental services employees, and many more.  Once again, we look forward to being a mentor for other companies, and then next year we will go “all in” again, and give it our best shot.

When people ask what is the key to your safety success, what do you say? What’s the secret sauce? Buy-in. It sounds simple, but it’s not. It starts with the owners and executives sincerely leading by example. This means making visible decisions that are in the best interest of safety, when they may actually be contrary to what appears to be the best financial decision. This means investing in equipment (for example, trucks) with the latest safety technology. This means investing in technology that enables better safety. This means investing in people—either hiring people with safety expertise, or training existing employees. This means leading by example in our personal behavior. For example, I do not talk on the phone while driving, and I have a company dashcam in my personal vehicle. If we expect our drivers not to talk on the phone and to have safety cameras in their trucks, well, I need to hold myself to the same standard. It’s reinforcing safety every day, and making sure our employees realize we embrace their recommendations on how we can be safer. We encourage our employees to let us know about near misses, and we share them companywide. We exhaustively investigate incidents or accidents, and we share the results with our employees. It’s also about trust. All of us feel safe that we can make a mistake and not worry about losing our jobs. We all realize the only way we can get better and safer is to be honest and open about mistakes—so we can all learn from them.

How do you keep your team focused on the safety details when it might be easier to rest on your laurels? The Sprint team has a lot of pride. We went “all in” preparing for the most recent award. It’s not so much about winning, but rather about using the preparation to help us get better. We loved being audited and being provided with constructive criticism. We immediately took that back to our team and started working on ways we could get better. We all realize we are in a dangerous business.  We have more than 300 trucks on the road every day. We have mechanics working hard in the middle of the night. We cannot relax when it comes to safety. The award process is a fun way of continuing our effort to improve. We say, “Safety is a marathon, and it never ends.”

A unique aspect of the Safety Excellence Awards is the mentoring requirement. How has the mentoring process worked for Sprint Waste over the years? We have really enjoyed the mentoring process. We actually flip it around in our minds. When we are working with another company, we are picking their brains to learn what they are doing that we can learn from them. Every company has certain things they do that are exceptional. We want to learn best practices whenever we can. At the same time, we are happy to share our Sprint safety practices. Plus, we have come up with a process we go through when we prepare for the award, and we gladly share our method. In our mind, we want every company to be as safe as possible. Safety is not really a competition. We want our employees to go home safely at the end of each day. So do the companies we mentor.

When you consider the next few years for your team, what goals do you hope to achieve in the safety area? A strong safety culture is a never-ending process. We want to develop a process and culture that is at the core of who we are as individuals. I’d love for employees who leave Sprint to take that with them to their next job or to their home. We are a growing company, so we are always hiring new employees. We want to have a contagious culture where all of our new employees quickly understand our expectations when it comes to safety, and buy into it for life. We realize that if we take our foot off of the accelerator, the safety culture can get diluted fast. We need safety to be so ingrained that it remains central to our “being,” no matter what happens with our business.  It may sound like a cliché, but ultimately our goal is to have no accidents or injuries. Every day we are challenging ourselves to find ways that we can get closer to that goal.