What Do Your Workers Really Think About Safety?

A safety perception survey can tell you if management and employees are on the same page about EHS efforts.

The president of a large construction company walks a prospective client through a job site, displaying the work his crews are performing. When the prospect asks about safety, the president beams and talks about the top-to-bottom safety program. Two workers within earshot exchange glances and sneer. Another feels his heart race as he ascends a ladder.

Meanwhile, the management team at a manufacturer is trying to determine why their workers' compensation coverage is going up substantially, driven by higher-than-normal recordable injuries. The vice president of production shakes his head. “I don't get it. We've put so much money and effort into implementing a safety program, but more people are getting hurt.”

In both cases, the companies would benefit from the same thing: a safety perception survey. It's a fairly easy tactic that can provide an amazing amount of insight and useful information.

WHAT IS A SAFETY PERCEPTION SURVEY?

In simple terms, a safety perception survey is a research tool that delivers an honest appraisal of worker attitudes about safety and a company's safety culture. For companies that have never analyzed what workers think about efforts to keep them safe, it can be a revealing process. For companies with well-established safety cultures, surveys provide a way to verify that measures are working, as well as an early warning of areas of concern.

Think of a safety perception survey like the dipstick in your car's engine. Although you're pretty confident that you have enough oil in your crankcase, you'll take a few seconds now and then to check that dipstick to make sure the level hasn't slipped and the oil hasn't become dirty.

Safety perception surveys can be customized to suit each client's needs. Surveys can be very specific or very broad — it all depends on what the client wants to learn. In some cases, they want to get to the root of a specific problem, but in others, they just want a better sense of how well their safety programs are working.

PERCEPTION IS REALITY

You may believe that you've developed the world's greatest safety program and that you've addressed every issue at every level. But if the people who actually are doing the work in the field don't believe that you have a strong safety program, you don't have one. Period.

That's why it's important to survey employees at all levels of your company's operations, so you can identify how perceptions differ between populations. Typically, we'll break surveys into three groups — the folks in the field who are doing the hands-on work; a mid-level management group that may include supervisors and foremen; and the people in upper management. We ask the same questions to all three groups and compare their response rates.

Usually, the higher an individual is on the organization chart, the more optimistic he or she will be about the company's program. After all, upper management understands the program's intent and sees its cost, so it must be working well, right? Mid-level managers tend to have a more practical view and provide more critical feedback on actual implementation. When you get down to the line workers, they'll tell you what really happens each day.

While differences in perception are to be expected, they also can provide clues. If the gap is within about 15 percentage points, it's probably not a big deal. But if there's a larger disparity between any two levels, it may be a sign of trouble.

SURVEY FORMATS

The problem with any kind of research is that a flawed survey is going to produce flawed results. We've found that the most effective approach is to develop a list of simple statements that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” For example, a statement could be “I have received specific safety training for the work tasks I routinely perform.”

In addition to saving time, that approach particularly is well-suited for line workers, because it makes answering each item as easy as circling their choices. Because they only have to decide between “yes” or “no,” their answers typically will be more immediate and honest.

It's important to ensure that the statements are simple, clear and concise, so that they are not subject to misinterpretation. Be especially careful if you have workers whose command of English is limited, because they may not fully understand the statement. If you have statements translated, be sure that the translation conveys the same intent, because literal translations may have wildly different meanings.

If your employees all have access to computers, you can collect information online through tools such as Survey Monkey. But no matter how you plan to collect the data, make sure you're asking for the right information and using statements than can't be misinterpreted.

KEEPING IT HONEST

Employers sometimes are concerned that their workers may not provide honest answers, and some workers may be hesitant to provide negative feedback if they believe it might be used against them. Using a third party to conduct your survey is one way to minimize those problems. Another is to design the survey in a way that builds confidence, such as having the employee place the finished survey in an unmarked envelope that then is sealed.

Here again, the approach using simple statements and circled answers encourages honesty, because employees won't worry that their handwriting may be recognized.

SHARE THE KNOWLEDGE

It's important to ensure that everyone who participates in the survey is made aware of the results. Some companies are hesitant to share what they perceive as negative information, but remember: If it came from a survey of your workers, they already know about it.

Sharing a summary of the results assures them that their opinions were heard, and that you value their contributions enough to be candid with them. It also sends the message that you aren't going to whitewash the results. Plus, the next time you conduct a survey, employees will be far more willing to participate.

A STARTING POINT

Companies usually will see some very clear conclusions coming from a safety perception survey, but in many cases, the survey only will call attention to issues that deserve additional study. For example, if we see a surprising gap on a question, we may go back and interview employees to gather additional insight.

Sometimes, the answers mean the opposite of what the company might think. Take “I'll act differently when I know that a safety inspection is being undertaken on my job site.” Although managers tend to view a “yes” answer as favorable, it's really a negative, because it suggests that the workers consider safety only when they're being watched. That means the company's safety inspections may not be as accurate as previously believed.

NOT A ONE-TIME THING

Safety perception surveys are most effective when they're part of an ongoing process. The initial survey can serve as a baseline for future surveys, giving the company a way to assess the impact of corrective efforts and to verify the continued success of the safety function. Conducting surveys once a year will provide excellent data for fine tuning your safety program and enhancing your overall safety culture.


Bobby Pirtle ([email protected]) is a safety advisor for Safety Management Group, an Indianapolis-based professional service organization that provides workplace safety consulting, training, staffing, program planning and implementation nationwide. Information is available at http://www.safetymanagementgroup.com/pub or by calling 800-435-8850.

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