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Six Strategies for a Stronger Safety Culture

Jan. 22, 2014
Companies with high injury frequency, high X-mods and inflated workers’ compensation premiums like to think their safety record is someone else’s fault. It isn’t.

No organization wants injuries. They all have a sincere desire to have a safe company, with no one ever getting hurt. But what, exactly, is management doing about it? What's their commitment? What action are they taking to make it happen?

Many companies sincerely believe that they are doing all the right things regarding their safety program. They provide excellent training, they are fully OSHA-compliant and their workplace is free of safety hazards; all are important basics.

But companies with X mods under 75 are doing more. They are taking actions that encourage their workers to be more engaged in safety, make it a higher priority and take personal responsibility for being safe. It requires action to get through everyone. The people that work for these companies know how important safety is, and often view it as a core value of the organization. This only happens the workforce is engaged and believes that safety is everyone’s responsibility.

When you set a firm foundation – providing training, being compliant, having a safe workplace – you don’t get much credit; it’s expected. However, it does provide a platform for a strong safety culture. It's what you do to build on this foundation that makes the difference. Companies have to find a way to involve their workers and they have to find ways to demonstrate their commitment beyond just words.

Benefits to Safety Culture

The benefits to a strong safety culture are myriad. The company is viewed – and rightfully so – as a better place to work. Morale typically is higher in companies that have minimal injuries. It’s great to get employees to take pride in any accomplishment, and safety provides a perfect opportunity. Pride in accomplishment is a wonderful thing for company morale.

A strong safety culture is more sustainable than a culture with an injury frequency that has allowed it to be over 1.00 (ut another way, below average). Once a company is below average on injury frequency, there is potential for really bad things to happen. Too many injuries lead people to take too many chances, with an acceptance that “injuries will happen." Too many visible injuries can lead to questionable claims, including fraudulent and exaggerated ones.

So, the benefits to a strong safety culture go beyond the measurable ones, including the significant savings that can be generated from having a sustainable safety culture that produces few injuries and as a result, boasts a low X mod.

I believe there are six primary strategies that consistently produce a strong safety culture:

1. Accountability

Setting goals and making them visible shows confidence on the part of management. Most importantly, it shows confidence that their employees will take safety seriously enough that they have minimal injuries. Everyone has something at stake when goals are set and managed. If the goals are a management priority, management must find ways to convey that to the people that work for them.

There are at least two significant positives to holding the workforce accountable to achieving realistic goals:

  1. Achieving goals puts them in the position of feeling a sense of accomplishment. It's not easy finding measurable goals that involve everyone.
  2. It lets everyone know that you are paying attention, and that injuries and accidents will be noticed.

It also opens the door to more discussion regarding incidents and how they could have been prevented. Having consequences can be a positive motivator to doing the right thing, the first step to taking personal responsibility for being safe.

2. Engagement

When you look at companies with low X-mods and a consistent record of minimal injuries, the one trait that seems common to all of them is that the workforce is engaged in the company's safety program. Employees are involved and participate. They feel like safety is a big part of the job, and there's no reason to take shortcuts or unnecessary risks.

Two recent surveys point out how difficult it is for companies to maintain an engaged workforce, to the point where both surveys claim more than 50 percent of workers are not engaged or disengaged. Safety presents an opportunity to engage workers in the job and in the company, and does it in the most important area, personal safety.

There are several ways to engage workers, but the single, most-effective way is with monthly safety meetings. This is the opportunity to accomplish several of the key components of a strong safety culture.

I want to go on record advising you to throw out the old model that we've been using for decades: the standard monthly safety meeting. Change the goal of the meeting from often repetitious, one-way communication, to getting people involved. I realize that’s a real shift in focus, but an important one.

Workers who have been at the job for any length of time have heard safety topics covered so many times that they are totally tuned out. Their cognitive senses flip the switch to the “OFF” position the moment the meeting begins. It’s also an undue burden for the person leading the meeting when a number of the workers are on another frequency.

3. Recognition

Recognition in front of peers for a job well done is a definite motivator. To achieve a goal is one thing, but the achievement is not as impactful as when that achievement is recognized publicly. This should be one of the goals of a monthly safety meeting.

The best recognition is the one that takes place in front of the group, preferably with applause from the group and appreciation shown by someone in management. Anything you can do to magnify the recognition – by posting picture, an article in the newsletter or a posting of some type – helps raise the importance of the award.

Depending on the company’s size, recognition should be given to teams, departments and individuals. The achievement of goals is worth recognizing, and it serves to motivate more accomplishments in the future.

4. Motivation

Part of working hard to accomplish a goal is the payoff that’s expected at the end. Recognition is the primary payoff, but I believe that cash or gift cards also are strong motivators, because they are desirable payoffs with instant gratification. It also is an acknowledgement that employee’s safe behavior is positive for the company financially. By making awards/rewards available, the company is letting workers know that their accomplishment is appreciated and that management wants to show appreciation in the form of sharing the savings they derive.

It is important to remember that the payoffs/rewards should fall within a reasonable range. An award worth less than $20 has such minimal value that it is a waste. I don’t believe in a little something for everyone for exactly that reason – a little something becomes a little entitlement that provides neither motivation nor payoff.

By the same token, awards that are too large encourage the one fear of all safety incentive plans – that injuries will go unreported. Keep the rewards meaningful but not too meaningful. Your goal is to motivate; not to be mistaken for something that encourages unsafe behavior or hiding injuries.

When people are motivated to achieve a common goal, positive peer pressure will emerge, and you’ll notice employees encouraging co-workers to wear their PPE, clean a spill or be careful when performing a certain task. Culture tends to move as a group so the positive effects will be felt throughout the workforce and entire organization.

5. Appreciation

This one is a difference maker. It’s an easy one to overlook, but I can’t stress its importance enough. The No. 1 reason that people leave a job for another job is because they do not feel appreciated. Safety provides a wonderful opportunity to show appreciation in an area that has great importance to every worker and to the company’s finances.

Too often, the only appreciation workers hear is for meeting a production or sales goal, or for receiving awards from outside vendors. When management shows appreciation to the people that work for it, and perform the most physically demanding jobs, it can have a terrific impact. After all, you are showing appreciation for something that is personal to every employee.

The easiest way to show appreciation is for senior managers to attend monthly meetings and to personally thank the award winners. When the company has a safe and injury-free month, congratulate and thank everyone. Little displays like this have the added benefit of demonstrating the importance of safety. The fact that a senior manager, or managers, take the time to attend the meetings, illustrates the importance of safety and the company’s commitment to it.

6. Credibility

The final driver on our list is management credibility. We all have seen companies where management wishes there weren’t any injuries, but doesn’t respond immediately to reported hazards. Or sometimes the OSHA records are way out of date, or they are behind in knowing which new trainings are required and when. Most likely, their IIPP has been gathering dust for years. These also are the kind of companies that tend to blame workers for having too many injuries. This demonstrates that safety is not a priority. Workers reflect that attitude in their behavior.

Everything management does in regard to safety is a kind of proof statement. Workers don’t have to consciously know what actions are taken or not taken, but inconsistencies are noticed and a general attitude is established. That attitude typically is a direct reflection of the attitude that workers perceive management has toward safety.

To establish credibility, management needs to start with meeting the basics. It needs to respond to safety hazards as well as safety suggestions. Management needs to have the courage to make public its safety goals and keep them visible at all times. Setting a goal but never following up is a great way to lose credibility.

Developing a thoughtful, engaging safety program goes a long ways towards establishing credibility. Words and signs alone don’t cut it; the best companies back up those words with actions that show their commitment, and engage their workers in the most important core value of the organization: safety.

About the author: Joe Stevens founded Bridge Safety Consultants in 2003 to provide companies and organizations with a resource to help them strengthen their safety culture. The company conducts a safety culture audit, then designs and manages safety achievement program, with bilingual monthly safety meetings. Stevens can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @safety_experts.

Joe Stevens is a regular blogger for His blog posts include: "Why I Hate Safety Bingo," "Why Safety Incentive Programs Are Misunderstood," "What Matters More, the Swin or the Score," and "Injuries Can Have Positive Consequences."

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