Perception is reality. In some organizations, unfortunately, there’s a perception gap that can create a dangerous divide between how senior leaders value their safety programs and how that value gets translated into effective safety measures.
That divide can exist in any workplace setting, from a manufacturing or construction site to a sedentary office environment to a routine medical practice. Regardless of the setting, it can become a dangerous chasm that can lead to life-or-death hazards.
MySafetySign recently conducted its first Health and Safety Industry Survey, in which we asked more than 500 safety professionals about their workers, workplace hazards and drivers of and barriers to safety. In our survey, we asked respondents how senior leaders view safety and how staff members view safety.
The results were mixed: Sixty-three percent of the safety professionals indicated that their senior leaders see health and safety as very important, while only 43 percent indicated that operations-level managers, supervisors and production workers share that view.
This disconnect between staff and upper management is intriguing. Our respondents represented a fairly broad spectrum of organizations, large and small, but they also had a lot in common. Nearly half of them said they’d been in their current roles for more than five years, and most reported high job satisfaction and low expected turnover. It was a group of EHS professionals who knew their organizations well.
Safety management consultant James Loud, CSP, who served as safety director of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Tennessee in the 1970s and 1980s, confirms that the survey results line up with his experience.
“I've found this delta between management’s perception of safety and reality quite common,” Loud says. “And I believe it represents a fundamental cultural weakness in many, if not most, organizations.”
Caught in Between
In many cases, EHS professionals are in a unique position in the chain of command, sandwiched between upper management and plant-level managers and supervisors. They often report to a senior executive, while charged with protecting workers from plant-floor hazards and empowering workers to protect themselves and each other, in the manner of teaching someone to drive and then handing them the keys.
Senior executives, looking at safety programs from 20,000 feet, see safety managers and their departments as solved problems. From the perspective of the C-suite, putting officers in charge of creating, maintaining and updating safety systems and protocols, and “ensuring compliance,” means that the workforce is safe. However, in a 2012 article for Professional Safety, Loud noted that “managers may know their accident rates but have little understanding of how well (or poorly) they are doing in regard to their organizational safety goals and objectives.”
Meanwhile, plant-floor employees might view safety as something that’s fulfilling a mandate from management – not necessarily something that’s critical to their wellbeing.
“Managers need to actually do things other than just issuing memos and giving speeches if they expect the workers to believe their safety commitment,” Loud asserts.
Many of the EHS professionals who responded to our survey are in a tough spot: They’ve been tasked with keeping the workforce safe – often without enough direct authority – and their job performance is determined by incidence rates and inspection results rather than by a holistic evaluation of how safe the worksite really is. In that kind of environment, front-line workers and managers are more apt to view safety as just another task on their to-do lists rather than a collaborative, continuous-improvement-oriented process that benefits them just as much as it benefits the company.
When Attitude is a Barrier
In our survey, we asked EHS professionals to tell us what techniques their organizations use to demonstrate the importance of safe working practices. Overwhelmingly, the answer was training, at 75 percent. We found it telling that “setting safety-related corporate and strategic objectives,” at 34 percent, was one of the lesser-used tools. And yet, arguably, setting companywide safety goals is one of the strongest actions management can take to show that safety is critical to the wellbeing of the company, whereas training puts the success or failure on the shoulders of the workforce.
“Unfortunately, many in our industry will attempt to ‘fix’ the employees’ attitudes and behaviors without addressing the more fundamental and root-cause problems of manager/supervisor leadership and a systems approach to safety management,” Loud says.
The desire to “fix” employees as the solution to endemic safety failures is astonishingly common, and we saw that perception reflected in our survey results. The safety professionals who responded told us that “worker attitudes” represented the highest barrier to effective safety programs in their workplaces, and there’s research indicating that worker perception of their own safety tracks strongly with adherence to safe practices.
“Managers who find that only a minority of their staff believe safety is very important shouldn't be surprised that their employees’ attitudes toward safety are considered a ‘barrier,’” Loud says.
In order to “fix” attitudes, however, management often will turn to positive-reinforcement techniques and behavior-based solutions. However, Loud asserts that many of these attitude-adjustment techniques can rely on peer pressure and conformity, instead of resolving root-cause problems and oversights, and some of the more Pavlovian methods fail to create long-term advocates for safety.
Safety Culture vs. Safety Systems
One way to understand the disconnect in perceptions is to examine the difference between safety culture and safety systems. Both are key elements of a safe workplace, but they’re very different beasts.
Systems are comparably easier to define but often hard to maintain, whereas culture can be almost impossible to define and tricky to quantify – and many people in the industry take an “I’ll know it when I see it” approach.
However, they both matter. Production-level workers and supervisors might see functioning systems all around them, but without the right culture in place, those systems can be ignored, misused or misunderstood.
“It's unrealistic to expect employees to take safety more seriously than their supervision shows that it does,” says Loud. Rather, successful safety cultures focus on how to provide the right information for the job rather than overwhelm the employee with all the information. Empowering workers to take responsibility for safety within their roles is more effective than a rules-focused, compliance-oriented approach that assumes management is waiting for failure.
“Safety is culture-driven and systems-driven,” Loud said, “and both of them are management’s responsibilities.” For the system to work, the culture must continually reinforce it, as transparently as possible and from the highest level of management.
Krissa Cavouras is the editor of the MySafetySign blog, as well as knowledge manager and resident regulations expert for Brooklyn, N.Y.-based MySafetySign. The company’s mission is to make signs and labels as effective as possible in order to prevent accidents and save lives.