“Workplace safety” has become a buzz-phrase in 2020, as the pandemic has made safety concerns related to the spread of COVID-19 a top priority for most business leaders.
Advocating for all aspects of workplace safety—from maintaining public health to changing practices and processes to predicting injuries, near-misses, property damage, and other leadership issues—is what I do for a living. My title is process change leader, and for more than two decades, I’ve worked with global organizations in manufacturing, oil and gas, and other industries to help build a culture of safety at their place of business.
Safety is all about people, and building a culture of safety is about instilling behaviors that become the norm. It is not something accomplished in a short time frame—typically, it takes five to 10 years and requires executive sponsorship as well as buy-in from the rank and file. And it is evidenced by a companywide resistance to precarious conditions and risky behavior. But positive short-term actions and changes in safety processes and systems can, over time, contribute to building this culture.
Yes, that includes organizations taking steps to protect their workers from being infected by the Coronavirus. But it also means the employees themselves stepping up to avoid spreading it to their colleagues. Workplace safety encompasses all factors that impact the safety, health, and well-being of employees—including safe working conditions and processes, lack of environmental hazards, safeguards against drug and alcohol abuse, and intolerance for workplace violence.
Among the companies I work with, some appear to be well on their way to achieving this culture. Others are making changes and will get there at some point. Still others have a long journey ahead, and may never make it without altering their style, thinking, and/or approach.
Here are some signs (i.e., leading indicators) that I see in corporations successfully building a culture of safety.
1. More Engaged and Empowered Employees
The “culture” of an organization is a theoretical construct, a quality of environment developed over time. When I visit companies, I tend to focus more on the organizational “climate”—the things happening on a day-to-day basis that are impactful and can be viewed as proxies for the overarching culture.
I’ve found that a climate is most positively affected by a high level of engagement between leaders and employees. This means that most people feel they are a vital part of the organization. Such interaction is conducive to leaders and employees willing to work together to create safety rules, guidelines, and practices, and then focus on identifying gaps in the processes and systems that make following those principles more difficult. By actively engaging your employees proactively, you will achieve true empowerment.
2. A Greater Emphasis on Proactive Measures and Safety Metrics
Many companies focus mostly on what I call “lagging indicators”: the injury rate, the number of incidents, property damages, work stoppages, and so on. These are important to track, for sure. But they all come after the fact. World-class cultures are more predictive and not reactive.
How about putting a higher priority on leading indicators, such as:
● What are our training rates and number of people trained?
● What is our score on our corporate audits?
● How quickly are we closing out open issues?
● Are we providing feedback to employees?
● Are we as leaders taking the initiative to have positive safety conversations?
Moreover, many companies use safety walks as opportunities to “shame and blame” people caught in the act of doing something risky. This “managing by the rules” also is not proactive and may not induce long-term change. In fact, the fault-finding and top-down safety “management” may instead create a culture of fear and avoidance. In general, people are more motivated to achieve positive outcomes, rather than to avoid negative results.
Building a culture of safety requires a proactive approach, with most of the learning provided on the front end.
3. Moving Safety from “Outside-in” to “Inside-out”
A manager might tell his or her crew member, “I need you to wear your safety glasses because it is an OSHA rule.” This type of “safety management” is what I call focusing on safety from the outside in; it signifies caring less about the person and more about making sure they’re following the rules. It also dwells more on the “what I need you to do” rather than the “why it makes sense to do it.”
More impactful “safety leaders” value creating safety conversations. They might show more empathy by saying something like, “Hey, I know it’s hot in there, and those glasses are fogging up and making it hard to see. But I don’t want to see you get hurt or lose your eyesight. So let’s make sure you wear your glasses to keep you from getting hurt and set a safe example for others.”
This way, people become motivated from the inside out by hearing less about the rules and more about their personal safety. They’re likely to not only do what you ask but also make safer decisions after that. People are much more motivated to do things they believe in rather than doing something simply because it’s a rule.
For example, forcing them to wear their glasses because of the rules may persuade them to do just that—but only that. Focusing on their safety above and beyond the rules may motivate them to wear not only their glasses, but also their gloves and face coverings, and maintain six feet of distance from others, to set a safe example for their co-workers.
4. Signage that Relates Safety to Helping You AND Others
I see a lot of signs posted at the companies I visit, and some yell at you with red zeroes with lines through them and the word “NO!” sprinkled throughout. Is it necessary to be condescending to employees to get the desired behavior? In world-class safety cultures, I think not.
Let’s take a common sign in the current pandemic: “Wash your hands.” This tells you precisely what you are supposed to do. Or “Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.” Adds some detail, but ditto.
How about, “Wash your hands for 20 seconds to save your family, friends, and co-workers from getting COVID-19”? This type of message may motivate best; it helps them internalize why they are washing and realize they’re doing it also for co-workers, family, friends, and their communities.
In my college days, I worked at a large manufacturing company, where I helped research the behavior related to handrail use. This company had a picturesque central courtyard with a fountain in the middle and a marble staircase that led down to it. In the brisk morning hours, the steps, layered with dew, would often become slippery.
Using a handrail to navigate these steps was the behavior we sought. But in tests we conducted, we observed only 30% of the users were doing so.
Three different buildings at this company led to the staircase, which allowed us to test three different signs. Which one do you think engendered the most handrail use?
“Please use the handrail when going up and down the stairs.”
“Caution, the stairs may be wet. Please use a handrail when going up and down the stairs.”
“Set a safe example for your co-workers. Use the handrail when going up and down the starts.”
All had a positive impact. The first one raised usage to 40%, and the second one to 50%. But the third sign was the clear winner; it more than doubled the use of the handrail to 65%, according to our study.
Following this same approach about employees setting an example and impacting an entire group or organization should get you the best results when it comes to signs – and conversations – about wearing PPE and other safety practices.
5. Safety that is Made Convenient
People are often driven by what is quickest, most comfortable, and most convenient. Asking employees to wash their hands before going to the break room—when the restrooms are some distance in another direction—may not be quick or convenient.
Putting temporary hand-washing stations on the way to the break room, for example, will make it easier to do the safe thing.
Likewise, rerouting walkways so that workers walk in only one direction, and providing markers so that they know they’re staying six feet apart from each other, are other ways to achieve desired results. These are signs that demonstrate a company’s commitment to a safer workplace and building a world-class culture of safety.
Safety is about people. Having conversations rather than dictating rules. Helping employees look out for each other and focus on the “why,” not the “what.” It takes time to build a culture of safety, but it usually pays off!
By following these suggestions, we all can help reach our vision of eliminating death on the job by 2050.
Chuck Pettinger, Ph.D., is a process change leader for Predictive Solutions (www.predictivesolutions.com), based in Blacksburg, Va. Predictive Solutions is a division of Industrial Scientific, a Fortive company.
Monte Enbysk of Fluke Reliability contributed to this article.