Including Leadership in the Safety Process

Are you ensuring the success of your safety, health and environmental improvement process? Not unless upper management is actively supporting it.

Today, few in business question the value of preventing unsafe behaviors in the workplace. It is axiomatic that production, profits and morale stand to gain when these changes are made. The more pressing question is, what is the most effective way to transform unsafe attitudes and behaviors into safe ones? Much of the responsibility lies with upper management.

How do we ensure that a company's employees at all levels integrate safety, health and the environment into their daily routines? By making safety, health and environmental excellence an integral part of our corporate and individual missions. In many businesses, the obvious "rightness" of the need to protect is easily overshadowed by other concerns, such as products and profits. Other obstacles include an unwillingness to invest in job safety, a lack of on-site capability and inadequate, or insincere, management support.

From our experience with business of all types, we have learned that any serious attempt to break through the barriers toward real progress must be rooted in a commitment to change attitudes and behaviors. Under the watchful eye of supervisors, line employees will often comply with requirements even when they don't agree with, or even believe in, what is being asked of them. They do this to "get along" or to avoid a negative reaction.

What happens when nobody's looking? Does the frayed cord get reported or merely stepped over? Does the five-step equipment cleaning process get reduced to one or two steps? Is personal protective equipment taken off or disregarded? What of managers and supervisors themselves? Without a system of strict accountability, are they following and stressing safe behaviors for themselves and others? Are they investing in making and having the kind of workplace and equipment that minimizes the possibility for anyone to get hurt?

The likelihood that an action will be taken or a behavior will be followed increases dramatically when people develop a belief in its value. Whether the issue is wearing personal protective equipment, following a procedure or investing profits in proper safeguards, the understanding that the behavior will keep an employee and his colleagues free from injury or incident is a powerful motivation.

Maximizing Return on Investment

Where, then, can we get the biggest bang from our investment in education and training? From reaching the organization at all levels, starting with upper management. In many organizations and among many consultants, it's believed that line employees are the wisest target. The thinking goes that they are on the front line, perform the most dangerous jobs and, thus, stand the greatest chance of being hurt.

In our experience, however, we have found that limiting safety, health and environmental education and training to the hourly work force yields minimal results in terms of sustaining long-lasting change. Far more beneficial is to identify the positive and negative influences that can cause a person to behave unsafely. These influences can emanate from the individuals, their co-workers, supervisors, managers and corporate executives, to say nothing of the countless influences outside the worksite.

Managing Management to Enhance Safety

The influence of managers is especially strong. To exclude them from the process, or to fail to provide them with insights into their attitudes and motivations, can greatly impede improvement.

What are the best ways to include leadership (managers, both corporate and site, supervisors and labor leaders) in the safety process? They must, among other actions, be educated and trained in effectively leading and supporting safety, health and environmental improvement. This effort should start before the process is in place. During the period the safety manager (and consultant, if involved) is "selling" top management on the safety strategy, the leader's role in implementation should be clearly spelled out so that no surprises result.

Management must be educated and trained in pursuing a constructive, rather than an adversarial, approach and in specific skills such as coaching and counseling. Managers need to understand why a proactive approach is essential for prevention, as well as the need for nonreactive, constructive methods to deal with incidents effectively when, or if, they occur.

Managers need to hear and understand that they will be expected to be visible and involved when it comes to safety, health and the environment. Signing the safety policy isn't enough. Neither is a command-and-control approach in which an iron fist substitutes for a caring pat on the back. Managers should understand the reasons for the safety, health and environmental process, the procedures involved and the desired results. Additionally, they should see the process as a reflection of personal and corporate values.

The importance of such values is conveyed by Berger and Sikoras in their thoughtful book, The Change Management Handbook: A Road Map to Corporate Transformation. "Human behavior in the workplace is conditioned by a number of factors. It is not only governed by corporate imperatives, but is conditioned by the employee's values. Thus, success of the enterprise depends in large measure on the extent to which these two value systems -- the corporate and the personal -- are in harmony." They explain that, once corporate and personal values are in harmony, "a virtuous circle develops."

Beyond "Feel Good"

In other words, to achieve a safe workplace, we need leadership that supports safety, health and environmental excellence as a reflection of values. These values are far more than empty platitudes that make the company or its people "feel good" about what goes on there. Rather, they are a set of principles and standards considered inherently worthwhile, providing a working blueprint that dictates, in many ways, how a company will perform.

The values are determined and communicated from management, then molded and shaped by line and management employees with the authority (formal or informal) to influence others. Taken together, these values and their embodiment in actions make up an organization's culture. The articulation of its values is the amalgam of all that is believed, spoken and otherwise communicated about it.

For example, in some organizations, the culture may be so production-driven that risk-taking is considered an acceptable means to get the job done. Employees may even be expected to cut corners (or overlook) to maintain production quotas. In such an environment, unsafe behavior is encouraged by the culture.

When expressions like "safety over production" reflect sincerely held values, employees will respond by working more safely. When they are perceived as meaningless phrases, safety, health, the environment, production and morale will likely suffer.

Every day at thousands of workplaces across the United States, corporate executives, managers and business owners enthusiastically call for zero accidents and greater employee involvement in safety. Yet, rather than place the burden and the blame on supervisors and line employees, their energy would be better spent becoming experts and advocates of the safety, health and environmental improvement process. Only then, when their words reflect their values and actions reflect their words, can their mandates be taken seriously and result in significant change.

Contributing Editor Michael Topf, MA, is president of the Topf Organization, a company providing leading-edge awareness and attitudinal and behavioral improvement processes for safety, health and environmental incident prevention. Topf has been a presenter for ASSE, NSC and other national and local organizations. He has written numerous articles on the topic of behavioral improvement in this field. The Topf Organization can be reached at (888) 41-SAFOR or on the Internet at www.TopfOrg.com

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