NSC: Safety Leadership Under Pressure

These are tough times. No one will argue with that. But does occupational safety and health have to suffer during tough, stressful times?

A recent study shows that workers in jobs where they have little control have a 43 percent greater chance of dying prematurely than workers in jobs where they feel they have some control. By contrast, the same study found no significant impact on premature death from physically stressful jobs. In other words, says Robert Pater, managing director of Strategic Safety Associates, being mentally stressed out is a better predictor of early death than being physically stressed.

"Stress is the feeling of being out of control," said Pater. "The more you help people feel in control, the safer they feel."

He calls terms like "personal responsibililty," as in taking personal responsibility for safety, "ineffective." A better term to use with employees, he adds, is "taking control." By encouraging employees to take control of their safety, you are giving them some control, he said.

There are three warning signs that pressure is getting to employees or a workplace: a change of focus (looking at situations from a very short-term perspective, rather than long-term, is an example, he said); disconnection from what's really going on; and low morale.

Some examples of a loss of focus include:

  • Having a short-term perspective
  • Refusing to measure results or not measuring them effectively
  • Using poor judgment
  • Ignoring details (example: housekeeping suffers)
  • Noting a repetition in problems or injuries
  • Employees going through the motions
  • People acting in a distracted manner

Disconnection can occur, said Pater, when:

  • Workers become isolated when organizations become overly decentralized.
  • Workers are afraid, feel insecure.
  • Workers experience a loss of what's meaningful.
  • Workers are told to "work to the rule" - ordered to do exactly what they're told.
  • Management and employees don't share information with each other.
  • Workplace experiences a loss of discipline.
  • Employers use blame to control employees, or use the threat of sanctions to try to change behavior.

And we all know the signs of poor morale, according to Pater: Unhappy, complaining employees; feelings of "life is too short for this"; living for the weekend; wishing for "the good old days."

To help safety managers gain control of safety and remind management of safety concerns during stressful times, he suggested they:

  • Be seen as a leader by volunteering for responsibilities and involving others in the process.
  • Choose their battles wisely.
  • Try to think how management thinks. Use their language. Don't talk "incident rates," talk "return on investment."
  • Relate to the personal and professional interests of upper management. "Almost every executive has some cause, either inside the company or out, that they support. Find out what it is and use it," Pater suggests.
  • Offer the benefits of safety: talk about improved scheduling, improved employee retention, improved public relations and employee relations.
  • Bring practical solutions to the table. Plant the seeds for projects now and be patient.
  • Timing is everything. "Respect their timing," said Pater. "If management is saying 'This isn't a good time to spend money,' respect that and drop it for the time being."
  • Prove your points. Show how others have accomplished a safety goal. Talk about successes.
  • Acknowledge management has the ultimate say and give them choices. "If you give them one choice and they say no, where does that leave you?" questioned Pater. "Give management two or three choices."
  • Thank them for past support, action and leadership. Let them know you appreciate their efforts.
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