Managing the Message

March 13, 2003
When managers and supervisors in your company

What gets measured gets done." We've all heard this repeated in various forms and it rings true. When we put a numerical performance measure in place, it gives the people responsible for achieving that goal a clear target. Having this target makes it much easier to focus on reaching the objective.

However, "what gets measured gets done" is only part of the story. When something is measured but isn't important, it doesn't get done. It is possible to set out attainable, measurable objectives and yet undermine the importance of these objectives without realizing it. Therefore, as an alternative, the phrase "people generally do what they understand to be important to their supervisor" gives a much more complete picture of a fundamental principle of safety management.

Every worker decides what is important to their supervisor soon after starting their employment and continually tailors that concept as time goes on, realigning it as new information comes in about priorities and goals. The decision as to what is important to their supervisor determines what will get done and what will not get done during a given day.

It isn't based on a single input such as verbal instructions or written policies. It is also not based on published company procedures, although these do play some role. (Most workers are far more interested in what their supervisor wants them to do that day than company statements of policy.) A worker's understanding of what is important to their supervisor is based on a variety of messages that the worker receives on a frequent basis throughout their workday.

Good vs. Bad Messages

"Good" messages lead employees to a safe behavior. "Bad" messages turn them away from safe behaviors. Not all of these messages come through management; some of them are merely perceptions. The good messages that point workers in the right direction should far outweigh the bad messages in frequency, intensity, consistency and sincerity. If not, good messages can easily be eclipsed by bad messages. The overall message can point workers toward unsafe behaviors.

A good message is an instruction during new employee orientation that they have to wear goggles and rubber gloves while adding water to the forklift battery. This single good message can be easily eclipsed by the multiple bad messages of: gloves are uncomfortable; goggles are inconvenient and fog up; nobody else is wearing this stuff why should I; I haven't ever been hurt doing it without the goggles; it's a hassle to find the goggles and put them on; we're out of gloves so nobody must care about safety; the supervisor walked right by and saw me with my goggles and gloves off and didn't say a thing it must be okay; and so on.

If we want to accomplish behavioral excellence in safety, we will have to carefully analyze the overall message that our employees receive and make sure that it is working in our best interest. We can only work with the messages under our control to make them outweigh the negatives. Let's look at the effect of the common messages we send to our workers.

For example, a construction company has a number of crews, each one reporting daily to the corporate office. Factors such as number of people on the site, number of hours worked, number of overtime hours worked, percent completed, materials used and hindrances such as bad weather and accidents are collected daily.

This company also spends hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on safety-related items such as a corporate safety director, safety training, incentive prizes, etc. Safety is a recurrent theme in the corporate training manuals, policies, onsite signage and the company's mission statement. Senior management is fully aware of the direct and indirect costs of accidents; therefore, they are all fully committed at heart. If you ask anyone in senior management what is important, they will tell you safety, customer satisfaction, efficiency and so on. Safety is always close to the top.

Yet if you ask one of the hourly workers, a beneficiary of these safety efforts, what is their opinion of management attitudes, you will get a contradictory answer. They will say, "All this company cares about is production. It's always push, push, push to get the job done."

Difference of Opinion

In safety perception surveys at many companies, the same disconnect between top management's sincere commitment to safety and the workers' perceptions is often seen. We have come to expect that in most companies, workers vastly underestimate senior management's enthusiasm for the workers' safety. The end result of this perception is that safety is not a necessity; it loses importance and becomes an option.

One wonders why there is such a vast difference of opinion. What is it about the senior management at our construction company and all these other companies that leads workers to their opinions? It may be the constant attention to the stream of production-related information that creates this perception.

Some or all of these messages recur in companies where worker perception of safety commitment is poor:

  • Production is a daily, even hourly topic of discussion. Safety is talked about at orientation, and later only infrequently.
  • Production issues such as quality control and lean manufacturing have heavy employee involvement and responsibility. Safety is the responsibility of a safety director and a safety committee, the affairs of which are a mystery to many of the employees.
  • Production is measured through clear metrics that are under the control of the workers. Safety has no metrics other than number of injuries and lost time and is charted perhaps once a month, or even once a year in the form of the indecipherable OSHA log posting.
  • Annual production goals are attainable percentage improvements based on experience. The safety goal is "zero injuries," and everyone knows from the start it cannot be reached, at least not in a single year.
  • Important production issues such as being behind schedule can cause cancellation of safety-related activities such as morning warm-up exercises, safety training, safety meetings and in-house inspections, whereas department managers only grudgingly delay production for safety activities.
  • Production improvements are made because we want our Kaizen or lean manufacturing processes to improve competitiveness and profitability. Safety improvements are made because there's an OSHA regulation that requires them.
  • Managers often participate in important production meetings with hourly workers. When there's a safety meeting, the managers disappear to catch up on paperwork.
  • Concepts and procedures learned in production meetings are treated with gravity after the meetings. Supervisors will check their workers' adherence and understanding carefully. When safety training is over, there is no formal follow-up. How can a supervisor follow up on safety training when he wasn't even in the meeting? No wonder that the workers fall asleep, and leave their handouts on the tables on the way out.

Of course, most people are conscious of the most blatant negative safety messages that we produce. They would cringe upon hearing the following story: A safety consultant comes into a construction company to do safety training for superintendents. At the end of four hours of training, the safety consultant is joined by an important member of senior management, who announces, "Well, this safety stuff is fine but don't forget we have to get the job done." In one sentence, four hours of training is undermined and the importance of safety is relegated to a lesser role.

Proven Systems

What about the more subtle messages? Because it is apparent that safety performance is critically dependent on human behavior, we must consider all messages that our workers are subjected to and devise systems of management to ensure that behaviors are not affected negatively by these messages. Luckily the answers to how to do this are at hand. Rather than try to create an entirely new model for management when it comes to safety, look at the established systems that have proven effective.

When employees are hired, they are in most companies given a mandatory orientation on various government requirements and company policies. This might consist of a few hours or more sitting in a room watching videos or listening to someone read from checklists. In some companies, it seems like the most important part of this process is obtaining the signed training record from the employee.

Later, the employee's real training begins. By its nature, the employee will realize that this training is important. The worker will be shown the equipment they are to use by a senior person, perhaps a supervisor or other highly experienced trainer. Operating procedures and manuals might be explained to them. They will be assigned to watch and to help in small ways while the senior person operates the equipment.

Their goals, such as daily production quotas and completion of production reports, will be explained and they will be shown how to complete the paperwork. These goals will be attainable and use simple metrics under the control of the employee. They might also be shown training videos, but only job-specific videos that add value.

Once they are familiar with production and quality standards, they may be allowed to operate the equipment under close supervision until they have proven they fully understand their duties and the importance of following procedures. This training process not only shows the employer that the employee comprehended the training and can follow it, but also gives the employee good messages, showing that correct operation of the equipment is important to their supervisor.

In the example above, training had greater dimension and more involvement from experienced people. There was a hands-on, interactive approach to allow the worker to gradually build his confidence in the use of the equipment and allow some oversight by the experienced people during that process. There were clear objective goals laid out for the employee, and a system provided for frequent objective observation by the supervisor of the employee's adherence to those goals. This system relies on far more than enforcement to motivate behaviors, which alone is not very effective. If worker safety used a similar method, safety training could have a greater affect on workers' behavior.

Safety Metrics

What about performance appraisals? Looking at most performance evaluation paperwork, we see much detail on what constitutes good performance in production, attendance, quality, teamwork and other elements that the employee knows are "important." What about the safety element? Safety may not even make an appearance on a typical employee performance evaluation. If it does, it is often vaguely worded so that the only objective measure of whether or not an employee was working safely for an entire year was whether or not they hurt themselves on the job.

This seems to be the only measure many companies can think of when it comes to individual safety performance. However, there are far more and better safety measures than whether or not someone got hurt. Why don't we look at things that people can do to prevent injury to themselves and to others?

Close adherence to safety procedures should be as important as close adherence to production procedures. Supervisors can also have good, clear, safety-related objectives. Supervisory safety performance can be fairly evaluated on completing employee training follow-up checklists, attending safety meetings, completion of accident investigations and root cause forms, completion of a certain number of job safety analyses in their department every month, performance during departmental inspections by the safety committee, number of safety contacts completed each month, and initiative in improving safety, among many others.

If daily production reports included a few safety items, that would provide metrics to be counted for the safety section of the performance evaluation. Periodic observations by supervisors of production and quality-related activities should include some safety observations. Again, the frequency for the safety observation would equal that of productivity and safety. This provides a much more effective and positive message about the importance of safety than having a few employees come through once a month on first shift to do a quick safety walk-through of the entire plant, for which only department heads are held accountable.

Senior Management

Since everyone looks up to their supervisor for guidance as to what is important, the commitment of senior management is needed so that there is no doubt as to the importance of safety performance. This is one of the reasons that "management commitment" is included in OSHA's safety management guidelines and is a recurring theme of safety consultants' recommendations. Ultimately, if senior management does not understand how to communicate the importance of loss prevention and safety activities, the program cannot reach its full potential.

Note that I use the phrase "does not understand how to communicate." It is very rare to meet someone in senior management who does not understand that safety is an important part of everyone's job. However, senior management is forced by the nature of their jobs to frequently discuss cash flows, profit and loss, efficiency, payroll and many other objective numerical measures of performance. They have goals that they have established for many of these measures, as well as industry benchmarking and knowledge of where their competitors are on the same measures.

Senior management may not understand that this nearly constant attention to production-related metrics conveys very little information about their interest in safety performance, unless they have constructed similar measures for safety performance and given them similar attention in their frequent communication with those under their direct supervision. The fact that the rare appearance of senior management in front of a group of employees usually concerns the company's financial health reinforces the workers' impression that senior management's main concern is production.

If senior management were to modify their system so they put the same emphasis on safety-related metrics, they would have more success in safety. Like every other representative of the company, senior management needs to be careful about the message that they put out, whether it is by things that they say or by things that they do not say.

If senior management, middle management or line supervisors want to achieve performance in any area, they need to clearly express a goal and stay on the message of its importance. Finding this message and putting enough emphasis on it to override the competing negative messages that workers receive throughout their workday, both from other people and from their perceptions, is the key to success in safety performance.

About the author: William H. Kincaid, P.E., CSP, is a senior loss control consultant for Lockton Insurance Cos. in St. Louis. Before becoming a consultant, he was an OSHA safety engineer specializing in ergonomics, "significant cases" and fatality inspections. He earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis and is a registered professional engineer with 12 years' experience as a production manager.

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