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Is Your Workplace Safe

The One Thing You Need to Know about Workplace Safety

Aug. 23, 2022
Start by identifying what is the one most important safety initiative you want to make progress on this year.

In The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, the authors share physicist Dr. Lorne Whitehead’s work demonstrating that a domino is capable of knocking down another domino one-and-a-half times its size. What that means is that a domino that is just 5 millimeters tall can knock down a domino 7.5 millimeters tall, which then could knock down a domino 11.25 millimeters tall. In such a manner, it would only take 29 dominoes to knock down the Empire State Building.

To help readers identify their own first domino, the book suggests they ask themselves the following question: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Inspired by the book, the author surveyed and interviewed safety professionals and company leaders and discovered a few common themes and patterns about their ONE Thing across four main categories:

  1. their upcoming safety initiatives,
  2. targeted safety practices,
  3. the role of senior leadership in safety and
  4. the beliefs of those on the frontline of performing the work safely.

Survey Results

Respondents represented a wide range of industries including safety consultancy, utility, manufacturing, government, construction, mining, oil and gas, military, and health care. Below is a summary of their responses to four questions.

What is the one most important safety initiative you want to make progress on this year?

Most respondents (Figure 1) reported initiatives targeting behaviors such as improving reporting, critical thinking, planning, or psychological safety. Many responses in this category referred to ownership and culture in general. Next most common were behaviors targeting employees’ hazard recognition or risk acceptance skills. Several organizations reported focusing on centralizing and streamlining their documentation for employees or for certification purposes. Others had software or training roll-outs in progress.

What is the one strategy, tool, or behavior your team needs to adopt to improve safety?

While most respondents (Figure 2) reported they would like to generally target behaviors that improved ownership or culture, there was not often a specific behavior identified that would help accomplish that goal. Communication behaviors were the next most common with respondents wanting to improve job planning dialogues, storytelling and info-sharing. They also reported the need to be continually recognizing, anticipating and mitigating hazards. Leadership behaviors such as coaching, seeking feedback and strategic thinking were also mentioned.

What is the one thing you really wish your senior leadership understood about safety?

Many respondents (Figure 3) reported that they work for leaders who “get it.” Others mentioned how critical it is for leaders to understand just how much they influence safety. Whether or not they lead by example or give mixed messages drives results and behaviors down the line. They also want their leaders to appreciate the complexity of safety: it impacts the organization in many ways, there are many root causes, it’s difficult to measure, and it takes time to see results. So, invest in programs and safety staff.

What is the one thing the frontline needs to understand about your safety program?

In a nutshell, respondents want the frontline to know that the safety department isn’t responsible for safety (Figure 4). The frontline has to own the program, follow the guidelines, and reach out for guidance from the safety department when they need it. Many respondents want the frontline to understand just how much they care about going home in the same condition and that the purpose of the safety department is to make that happen. If safety procedures are too burdensome or not helping, then collaborate with safety to make it better.

Interview Insights

For a deeper understanding of the ONE Thing across these four questions, the author interviewed safety professionals and company leaders from the manufacturing, maritime, military, utility, construction, environmental inspection, pharmaceutical, and oil and gas industries. Based on these interviews, here are four principles to help take your organization’s safety to the next level.

1. Embrace Metrics

Across the board, there was significant frustration and lack of clarity when it came to metrics that accurately conveyed an organization’s level of safety or risk. The safety professionals we spoke with understood that having statistics for their leaders was important, but they also found it really hard to do.

In the past, there was a lot of focus on lagging indicators around injury rates and lost time, but those statistics don’t provide information on what is causing a problem. Nor do they tell if an organization is safe or if it’s just that all the holes in their Swiss cheese haven’t lined up yet. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of pressure on those metrics.

On the one hand, safety professionals are feeling that these lagging indicators are inadequate, but on the other, they can’t let them go. Part of the reason they can’t let them go is because there aren’t good replacements. During our interviews, we collected over 30 potential candidates for leading indicators.

Despite these difficulties, it’s important to embrace metrics because time and money are finite. When invested in one area, they can’t be invested someplace else. Knowing if an investment was worthwhile and should be continued requires some kind of way to measure success.

2. Embrace Buy-In

Time and time again, safety professionals expressed the belief that workplace safety was not solely the responsibility of the safety department and that every person in the organization played a role in it. Safety professionals said they wanted more buy-in from other departments. They wanted employees to take ownership of their own personal safety.

Safety culture, ownership and accountability are driven by buy-in. Buy-in comes from at least three places. The first happens when employees connect the dots for themselves about how some change the organization wants to make to a process, a piece of equipment, or a behavior is important to them. It’s much easier to write a memo or stand in front of a classroom and tell people why it matters. But it’s much more powerful when they realize for themselves how it protects something they want to protect or helps them accomplish something they want to accomplish.

Buy-in also happens when employees participate in the problem-solving process. Adults like to feel a sense of autonomy, and they want to apply tools and strategies in ways that make sense to them and accommodate their experiences. Involve employees in crafting the solutions, and they will be significantly more bought in. During our trainings, employees always craft their own plan of action on how they will apply a new behavior into their own work day.

The third place buy-in comes from is leadership. Are they allowing the time and investing in the structure that allows employees to connect the dots and be a part of the solution? Are they communicating mixed messages about safety? Are they undermining employees’ sense of autonomy or respect with authoritative or dismissive communications?

3. Embrace a holistic approach.

Many organizations are finding that the quick wins and easy solutions are already addressed. To reach the next level of safety performance, they have to dig deeper and address multiple areas to have an impact. It requires both developing resilient systems so that employees are protected when errors are made and improving how employees behave within the systems.

When it comes to changing how employees behave, organizations have to appreciate how difficult that is. Human beings are complicated. Employees don’t leave work at work or home at home. Their physical and emotional well-being matters, so improving workplace safety means investing in programs that help employees create healthy personal well-being habits. Leadership and communication skills are important at every level in an organization, but they are most often neglected in the frontline supervisors who can have the greatest impact on workplace safety. Getting employees to adopt these new skills requires both good training and embracing the next principle: focus.

4. Embrace Focus

Returning to the domino analogy, the domino is the initiative to learn a new technology, tool, or behavior that will make the biggest improvement and set you up to knock down the next domino. Unfortunately, knocking over a domino takes so much more time and effort than we would like.

One of the biggest struggles mentioned in the interviews was how hard it was to maintain focus long enough to see results from an initiative. Organizations have so many other priorities to address. There’s always the next training that has to get done, the next initiative it’s time to launch, and that next e-mail that needs to get sent. As a result, organizations have moved on before employees have incorporated new knowledge, tools and behaviors into their existing habits.

In order to get long-term measurable results, we recommend organizations plan to spend at least 60 days after the launch focusing on the knowledge, tools and skills they want employees to retain. Plan ahead of time the micro lessons that will revisit key topics and takeaways from different angles or with different examples. Set up a structure that helps employees practice new skills until it becomes a natural part of their day.

Making a Difference

Now it’s your turn. What is the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it each of your efforts to create a safer workplace will be easier or unnecessary? As you’re answering that question, take a holistic approach to look at the entire organization and the many facets of your employees’ lives. Involve employees in strategizing how to knock the domino over, identify the metrics by which you’ll determine the success of the initiative, and then focus on it long enough to make the difference you want see.

Sharon Lipinski is the Habit SuperHero and CEO of Habit Mastery Consulting, which helps organizations increase their targeted safety behavior by up to 150%. She is a Certified Gamification for Training developer, certified CBT for insomnia instructor, speaker, TV personality and coach dedicated to helping people create the right habits so they can be happier, healthier and safer at home and in their work.

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