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SLC 2022 Preview: The Impact of Employee Engagement on Workplace Safety

Sept. 22, 2022
Why change (mostly) has to start at the top and why safety is more than a title.

We spend about one-eighth of our life working, so it behooves us to like what we do. And our feelings about our work are shaped by how invested and engaged we are.

Employee engagement is a perennial concern, and the consequences of low engagement can be felt throughout the organization, including safety. That’s why improving employee engagement and occupational health and safety go hand in hand.

EHS Today spoke with Sammy Davis, vice president of safety and security for Papa Johns International, about what he’s learned—both on the job and in the classroom—about what it means to be a safety leader.

Davis will speak at the 2022 Safety Leadership Conference, being held in Cleveland from Oct. 18-20. Below is a preview of what to look forward to this fall.

EHS Today: COVID-19 has spurred many workplace conversations, including some about employee engagement. What are you hearing, and how do you feel about what you’re hearing?

Davis: The biggest struggle regarding COVID-19 and engagement has been the return to work. Many companies have made the decision to continue remote work. Those that have brought folks back in, have done so on a modified schedule. This has created limited face-to-face interaction, impacting engagement. I consistently hear folks say they love remote work but having the personal interactions are paramount. Unfortunately, I think this is the new norm.

How does employee engagement affect workplace safety?

When you look at the characteristics of “engagement,” safety is impacted by all three: vigor, dedication and absorption. The more engaged an individual is, the safer the workplace tends to be. The caveat to that is complacency. Absorption can lead to a state where one becomes so absorbed [that] they become complacent. Manage these three, and you have improved engagement.

How do you define safety leadership? Can you provide an example, either real or fictional, of what that looks like?

Safety leadership is the ability to cast a vision so compelling that others are willing to follow regardless of how difficult the task may appear. One example that comes to mind is that in my current role I have challenged my teams to improve workplace injuries and vehicle crashes.

In both cases, I have faced resistance and told, there is no way to improve either of these as they are just a part of doing business in this industry. After creating a vision and garnering a few small wins for the team, everyone has bought into the idea. Now, five years later, both metrics are well below industry averages.

We often talk about how change has to start at the top. Do you think that's the case for employee engagement and safety leadership? Why or why not?

For the most part, yes. It is much easier when the top supports the initiative, especially when funds are needed. That said, when it comes to implementing a new process, technology or procedure, frontline management is more critical to the success that executive leadership.

Is there anything a safety professional can do to affect employee engagement and safety leadership at their organization?

This is exactly what my session will cover. The answer is yes, but you have to understand your leadership style and how that impacts engagement. Also, having an understanding of what engagement really means makes this much easier.

How might employee engagement and safety leadership affect workplace safety in the coming years?

I think as we learn more about the concepts of engagement and leadership, we can begin to translate that to the safety profession. Safety leadership is growing tremendously, and the more we can learn, the better we will be.

What's one thing you hope attendees learn from your session at the Safety Leadership Conference?

To realize just how important it really is to understand what safety leadership is and to know that it is way more than just holding a safety position. Gaining an understanding of the different leadership styles and having some self-awareness is critical to the profession.

About the Author

Nicole Stempak

Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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