Safety professionals are responsible for ensuring their companies follow a wide range of workplace rules. Whether it’s emergency exits, fire safety training, industry-specific guidelines, or OSHA’s new national emphasis program on heat exposure, regulatory compliance is an increasingly complex field.
However, nearly every specific rule extends from OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which essentially states that employers have an obligation to promote a safe work environment.
Effective communication is one of the most critical aspects of workplace safety. Employers must clearly identify workplace hazards and explain how to mitigate and avoid them. And workers need a way to report changing conditions and seek help in the event of an emergency.
Unfortunately, the most common OSHA violations involve a failure to adequately communicate safety risks to employees. From neglecting to provide two-way monitoring for divers and alarm devices for psychiatric ward employees, to improper training on emergency scenarios (e.g., active shooters or severe weather), failed communication directly contributes to workplace violence, injuries and even fatalities.
With the increasing volume, frequency and uncertainty of threats facing businesses and their employees today, safety leaders need robust and reliable means of communication. Here are three benefits of building effective communication into organizational preparedness plans.
1. Increase Employee Engagement
In the event of an emergency, workers are counting on their employers for information and guidance. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 77% of respondents trust their employers while just half trust the government or media.
Trust is the cornerstone of a safe workplace. Employers can check every box for required training and communication. But if employees aren’t listening, engaged and believing what they hear, will they actually use the information to build a safer environment?
To earn employee buy-in, a company needs a strong and positive safety culture. Organizations should build it into every aspect of operations, from onboarding to training to day-to-day activities.
Focusing on proactive prevention rather than reactive discipline, such as a quick-turn training after an emergency occurs, encourages employees to be mindful of safety practices in a routine-like manner. Once employees are used to implementing daily safety tactics, getting involved in larger safety plans—such as joining a fire safety or operational safety team—becomes a more welcomed concept across the organization.
Another key aspect of maintaining a healthy safety culture is ensuring employee feedback loops are in place. Employees often experience workplace safety through a different lens than those responsible for writing policies and procedures. They face hazards every day, see safety plans in action, and are well-positioned to keep them in motion and provide insight into improvements.
Yet according to research from HR software company UKG, 86% of workers feel that colleagues are not heard fairly or equally at their companies. Listening to employees not only refines safety plans, it helps build trust in the employer’s commitment to safety.
2. Optimize Emergency Response
Every second counts in a crisis, and communication can be the difference between life and death. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are a painful but powerful reminder of this. While many companies in the World Trade Center towers were in disarray, Morgan Stanley deployed swift disaster response and evacuated all but 13 of its 3,800 employees to safety within 45 minutes.
Many people think of emergency preparedness as a discrete set of plans. In reality, it’s a constantly evolving continuum, from planning to practice to refinement. And, in rare but critical cases, execution.
When a company needs to put its disaster plans into action, a robust two-way communications tool is critical. Centralized software allows a dedicated safety officer to push alerts out to the entire company instantly, delivering the message via voice, SMS, email and any other necessary channels. Content can also be dynamically tailored to different segments of the audience to provide the most relevant information, such as conditions pertaining to a specific building or location.
The importance of the two-way aspect is not to be overlooked here. With read receipts, delivery notifications and employee responses, safety teams can get a clear picture of whether employees have received information, the latest changes in site conditions and instructions for where to deploy help.
This two-way flow of information provides enhanced direction during a crisis and facilitates a rapid, effective emergency response to maximize employee safety.
3. Improve Business Resiliency
The past few years have been an immense test of resilience for companies across all industries. Millions of businesses shuttered—some temporarily, others permanently—and revealed how fragile many organizations were. In the wake of the pandemic, an Accenture survey found that 74% of C-suite executives feel they need to completely rethink their companies’ operating models to be more resilient.
COVID-19 was beyond the scope of any reasonable emergency scenario, but companies face smaller and more foreseeable crises every year. While ensuring employee safety is the top priority, companies need to maintain business continuity as well. One of the keys to improving both safety and resilience is maintaining a constant state of readiness.
Severe weather storms are an excellent example of how to focus on preparation to build resilience.
Before a storm arrives, companies should keep their teams abreast of forecasts, provide reminders on preparedness plans and actively field incoming questions. Once the storm approaches, an organization can leverage its two-way communication system to keep employees updated on conditions, announce location closures and allow employees to request assistance if needed. After the event, employees can document any damage or injuries, and company-wide alerts keep everyone informed throughout the reopening process.
Proactive measures before an emergency scenario will always lead to better outcomes than a hurried and improvised reaction.
Promote a Safety Culture with Effective Communication
Strong safety culture is critical to successfully protecting employees in the workplace. A company can develop complex plans and perform regular drills, but if employees don’t buy into and believe in the process, they’re not truly prepared for an emergency.
Effective communication is critical to building that trust. Whether it’s safety training, regular updates or emergency alerts, employees are counting on accurate and reliable information. With a robust plan and a two-way communication platform in place, organizations can better position themselves to protect their employees and ensure business resilience when disaster strikes.
Peter Steinfeld is senior vice president of safety solutions at AlertMedia, a threat intelligence and emergency communication provider. Peter is the host of The Employee Safety Podcast and also leads AlertMedia’s sales organization. He has been involved in the emergency communications industry for nearly 20 years, where he has advised organizations of all sizes on matters related to employee safety.