Why Employee Involvement May Not Be Enough

For lasting improvement, employees must "own" the safety and health process.

The highest praise one can bestow on a successful safety and health process these days is that it has a strong employee involvement component. Asked for evidence, a safety manager in charge might point to employee participation on a safety committee, employees conducting job safety analyses, audits or observations, people's willingness to take responsibility and intervene with anyone regardless of their position, or the valuable ideas submitted to an employee safety suggestion program. There's no question that these activities are excellent measures of involvement. But is involvement enough? I believe not, if the goal is lasting improvement to safety, health and the environment.

A more significant measure of a process or program's worth is employee ownership, a combination of activities and indices that suggest a higher level of commitment by the employer and the employed. What that condition is and how to achieve it are the subjects of this column.

What Does It Look Like?

To discuss employee ownership, it's first necessary to define it, which is best accomplished by describing how the condition "looks" at a place of employment. The first characteristic is universality -- employee ownership means participation by employees at every level. When used as part of the term employee ownership, "employee" does not refer uniquely to line or hourly workers, but to everyone involved in the organization at every level and in every department.

One can "see" ownership in action when employees refer to the safety process in daily conversation, safety jargon or common terms of reference are frequently used and its influence begins to be felt in off-the-job behaviors. It's evident in a willingness to participate in activities that support the learnings of the process, continual improvement activities and employees' desire to reinforce, support and correct one another. In addition, it can be detected when contractors and other visitors to a manufacturing plant are routinely reminded by any employee that they, too, must follow safe work practices when on site and when their failure to do so is immediately corrected.

What Does It Require?

For any safety, health and environmental improvement process to become self-sustaining and successful, it needs to become a seamless part of the culture of an organization. This is doubly true if the desired end result is employee ownership. To that end, the process and its benefits must be seen as having value for the employees, their families and others in the company.

All of us operate out of a variety of motivations. We may comply with a safety protocol, for example, because it's required, which safety should and must be. We might also take action because we are compelled to do so out of a fear of retribution. Or we may act because the value and benefit of the action -- locking out a piece of machinery, for example -- is internalized and understood. The chance that employees will come to own the safety process grows dramatically when those involved believe that the decisions they make have immediate and long-term value. "It's my eyes, back and hands. I want to keep them for me and my family."

Another essential condition for employee ownership is personal responsibility. Employees will take ownership only when they realize and accept that they are responsible for themselves, their co-workers, families, friends and community. When we work with companies to implement a process to replace unsafe attitudes and behaviors with safe ones, we typically start with an in-depth assessment. It asks, among other questions, who employees view as responsible for their safety. Predictably, we see answers like, "management," "the safety director" or "the union safety rep." This deflection is the polar opposite of the personal responsibility that must be in place before genuine employee ownership can occur. Until employees accept personal responsibility for their safety and, in turn, identify and avoid unsafe actions and hazards, they have little chance of embracing a process that asks them to extend that responsibility beyond themselves.

How Do You Do It?

Once you've decided that employee ownership of the safety process is a worthwhile goal, what's required to achieve it? A critical step is to gain insight into current employee perceptions. One process relies heavily on a comprehensive perception survey that polls all levels of management and line employees. Similar surveys can be conducted internally or with a consultant's help. This gathering of beliefs and opinions sets the tone for the all-employee collaboration that must accompany every step in the development and success of your process. Employees are wary of processes or programs imposed on them from outside, and for good reason.

As you compile data and begin to construct the elements of the process, keep in mind the end-up. The ideal is not merely a process that ensures you will have accurate material safety data sheets, reliable records, safe forklift drivers, and safe attitudes and behaviors. The process should be built on the premise that, fundamentally, most employees want to make a difference. They may have tried in the past with their current or previous employer and been rebuffed in their attempts. They may have never had the opportunity. As a result, many people have shut down and are reluctant to participate and get involved. Yet, experience in a great variety of workplaces has demonstrated to us that, no matter what the industry and the workplace culture, employees say "yes" when offered a chance to make a positive difference in the quality of the work environment and in the quality of their lives.

Within your process or program, be sure to include a structure for employees not only to participate, but also to excel, gain recognition and demonstrate how much they can achieve. This can take any number of forms. Perhaps an especially skilled employee could be relieved of some regular duties to conduct peer training. Problem-solving teams are encouraged and supported in taking the necessary time to carry out their activities. Or once your process has hit its stride, empower a group of employees to author a booklet that shares the success of the process with others in your industry.

The opportunities to encourage ownership are endless. It's up to you to communicate the benefits clearly, illustrate the value of the process, and provide the structure and support necessary for success. The best way we know to do this is by focusing not only on the behaviors, but also on the attitudes that underlie them. With determination, you will achieve a work force that understands "it can happen to me" and that possesses the awareness and tools to make sure it doesn't. Your employees will wear their protective gear and get involved, not because it may please their supervisor, but because they care, and they know you care, about their well-being.

Turn employee involvement into employee ownership, and everyone will benefit.

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. The Topf Organization can be reached at (888) 41-SAFOR or on the Web at www.TopfOrg.com.

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