"To be or not to be" may have stumped Hamlet, but it is a question that Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) has an answer for when it comes to its safety program.

Almost two years ago, the Houston-based company, which employs 30,000, has 14,400 solid waste trucks and serves 1,600 communities, decided it wanted to be the epitome of safety in the industry. By prioritizing safety, this 31-year-old company has changed its entire corporate culture, attitude and behavior.

Dave Buckner, vice president of the environment, safety and health division, was charged with re-organizing programs and redesigning management procedures to reduce the 1,500 to 1,700 monthly claims - injuries that translated to about $100 million spent annually.

"A number of our large customers told us that our accident and injury rates were too high," Buckner says. "The massive number of claims were not good for business. They meant we were hurting our own folks and damaging our customers' property. We just had to get better."

At the start of BFI's 1996 fiscal year, Buckner began re-assessing its safety programs, emphasizing more accountability among management and employees.

The company became "leaner and smarter," he says. The corporate staff was pared as more people were put out in the field to get a closer look at what was going on in its 300 North American collection districts.

Safety literature was incorporated into the company's annual report and employee handbook and was tucked into bonus plans, "to drive home the message that we care about employees and safety," Buckner says.

The first signs of improvement came in January 1997, when the company started to see injuries and claims decrease. Just one year later, the number of monthly claims had declined by almost 600 - after four years of escalating claims.

For fiscal year '97, a remarkable 2,100 fewer claims were reported, and $5 million less in claim costs. The trend has continued into '98: In the first four months of this year, claims have plunged 2,200 below last year's total, and Buckner anticipates a savings of $8 million to $10 million in reduced claim costs by the end of this fiscal year.

BFI tracks its safety progress - especially its total injury rate or the number of reported injuries per 100 employees - with pie charts and graphs. The 1996 rate was 18 to 19 injuries for every 100 employees. In December 1997, that number dropped to below 10.

Reduced accidents and costs associated with claims have re-invigorated the company, Buckner says. "The key is selling the concept that we 'gotta' have trucks and we 'gotta' have people, but we don't 'gotta' have accidents."

Safety First BFI's employee safety is focused in three areas: truck drivers, mechanics and helpers on trucks and in facilities. For drivers, safety on city streets, highways and customer property is essential. Its employees are trained in safe-driving techniques, including mapping out the safest routes (which often means minimizing left turns) and asks its drivers to list the unsafe stops. Buckner says the company even has given up customers because collection was too risky for drivers.

Another way safety is promoted is through the company's "VORS," or vehicle observations, in which managers observe drivers, who are unaware of the surveillance, and then reinforce what they did right and show them what they could do better.

For helpers, personal protective equipment is provided, including reflective vests, protective footwear, safety glasses and gloves. Employees also are given training in proper lifting techniques to prevent back injuries.

Buckner says the mechanics operate in properly stocked shops with the right tools. The mechanics also perform preventative maintenance on vehicles. As a result, very few cases of crashes are attributable to mechanical failure, Buckner reports.

In addition to the collection training that is required by law, BFI conducts annual internal hazard assessments, where managers observe employees at work, including their daily hazards and how they deal with them. Ultimately, this program allows employees to have more control over their jobs. "People will behave safely if they take ownership of their own safety," Buckner explains.

Employees earn rewards for good safety practices, including awards and bonuses that recognize drivers and operators with exceptional records. For example, during the safety program's kickoff in '96, BFI gave away everything, including hats, T-shirts, television sets and Ford Explorers. "It was a way to show people we care, all the way up the ladder," Buckner says.

The company, concerned about its customers' perception of its safety, distributes surveys to track customer opinions. Initiated last year, BFI's customer surveys ask two questions: "How safe are BFI drivers on city streets?" and "How safe are they on your property?"

All types of customers - commercial, municipal, industrial and residential - are then asked to rate the company from one to 10, and the findings are published quarterly. Although safety is only one of 12 performance factors to gauge overall customer satisfaction, so far, customers have rated BFI's safety in the 90th percentile, Buckner says.

BFI also works directly in the districts through its breakthrough teams. Here, employees meet after hours with a facilitator to address issues in that district and meet as often as necessary for three to four weeks to solve problems.

For example, in Tyngsboro, Mass., back injuries and strains were a big problem for collectors. The company hired an exercise professional to train the crew in proper stretch methods, and the 23 injuries in Tyngsboro in '97 have been reduced to only two so far this year.

And, in Boston, where too many vehicles were being hit, truck signs and mirrors were changed because of employee suggestions.

"The first step is to improve the overall awareness of safety and get the tools people need to show improvement," Buckner says. "Once you have a general awareness of what you're looking for and [you are] measuring improvement, you can focus on those marketplaces that aren't keeping pace."

With potential losses from claims estimated at $100 million annually, Buckner says the money they invest in the program is worth it. "Time and salaries are only 2 percent of cost, and the safety initiatives already have paid for themselves in the first few months of '98," Buckner explains.

No matter the cost, Buckner says that the response to the safety programs "has been terrific, but more important has been the leadership assumed by management and the ownership taken by employees for their safety and the safety of their peers."

True Blue Safety BFI also is looking out for the communities in which it operates. Through its 5-year-old "True Blue Looking Out For You" neighborhood watch program, drivers, in partnership with communities, are trained by emergency service providers to watch for emergency situations and serve as the eyes and ears of the local police, fire and medical teams.

Drivers have two-way radios in their trucks so that they can alert dispatchers of any emergency they spot while on their route. The dispatchers, in turn, notify police, fire or rescue teams.

In dozens of communities, from British Columbia to Orlando, Fla., the neighborhood watch program works in conjunction with local officials to report accidents, fires, hazardous road conditions or suspicious activities.

Support for a new initiative called "SafeAmerica," resulted from the company's re-assessment of its corporate safety focus, according to Bonnie Moss, BFI's divisional vice president of community affairs (see "Safely Covering the Bases" above).

This is a philanthropic program that meshes with the company's goal of identifying a "worldwide cause, creating a primary focus for civic engagement, charitable giving and employee involvement in the community," Buckner says.

Meanwhile, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, was looking for support for a new program. This intersection of interest brought BFI and NCICP together, resulting in "safety-through-injury-prevention" as the focus of BFI's new worldwide cause.

BFI became the first corporate member of SafeAmerica, which was launched last November in Washington, D.C. With pilot programs now in three cities - Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis - SafeAmerica identifies ways to prevent death and injury in homes, schools, workplaces, on streets and highways, and in communities.

BFI's role is to guide national SafeAmerica programs and ensure they are in line with local and regional needs assessments, as well as to help recruit other corporations.

The company works with nonprofit and government groups to raise awareness of injury prevention programs. In addition, it contributes to reducing injuries by steering the pilot projects and helping form coalitions in each city that include state health departments, local emergency services, businesses, nonprofit groups and residents.

But BFI is not just writing checks. It also is going into communities and working with their coalitions to identify an issue. Then, the group devises a plan to be completed within one year.

Atlanta's focus is "safety on the move" (car safety seats). Likewise, in Detroit, this program promotes safe driving, focusing on issues such as booster seat awareness, teen driving/prom night and elderly driving skills. Minneapolis' focus is "safe at home," which includes a door-to-door assessment of 300 homes.

BFI's safety program is making a statement that falls to the bottom line. And, with plummeting injury rates, significantly lower claim costs and the budding SafeAmerica partnership, BFI now is willing to use its research and data to help other companies - including competitors - improve their safety records, according to Buckner.

"If BFI can help improve the safety of the entire industry, we're happy to do that," he says. "But the important thing is to send our people home safe at the end of the day."

"We can't accept injury as a way of life," says Mary Ann Fenley, associate director for communications for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

As a result, her agency created the SafeAmerica program, whose message covers five "bases": safe at home, at school, at work, on the move and in the community.

Preventable injuries are among the top 10 causes of death for Americans of all ages, and more than 150,000 people die each year from injuries.

To help curb these numbers, SafeAmerica is:

*delivering community programs that prevent injuries or control the effects after an injury occurs;

*conducting research to seek new ways to prevent injuries;

*monitoring injury problems and documenting successes in injury reduction; and

*developing an information campaign to make people aware of methods to keep themselves safe in the five "bases."