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Putting Safety on Climate Control

Your company is an industry leader, and management has invested in elaborate safety programs. So why can't you excel at safety?

Some companies have elaborate, expensive safety programs that achieve only slightly better-than-average results. The reason can be a great mystery, especially when the company is an industry leader, excellent at making a product or providing a service. Why is it when they're so good at everything else, they can't excel at safety?

The answer is simple: None of the safety effort is focused on what the average employee thinks about the company, and those attitudes are affecting the safety results. Poor attitudes influence workers to make decisions that aren't always in the best interest of the company. But there is hope. When attitudes largely are guided by what psychologists call "organizational climate," it's possible to influence attitudes for the better.

Organizational climate is the atmosphere of the company. It's seemingly an intangible, but can be measured in terms of morale, trust, leadership credibility, fairness in rewards and other factors. Climate influences employee decisions, attitudes and behaviors.

Organizational climate has been studied for years by organizational psychologists. Some of the significant research was done 30 or more years ago. It's been proven to affect employee attitudes and resulting behaviors.

Left Out of the Loop

Some companies are so conscious of organizational climate they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants who promise to help them become a "great" place to work. The basis for this interest in climate is the knowledge that employees are better workers who are less likely to quit if they work in a positive climate.

For some reason, the safety profession seemingly has been left out of the loop. Ask a safety person what effect the safety processes they control have on organizational climate and you might get a blank look in response. However, the timeworn phrase "safety culture" will always ring a bell. "Safety culture" has apparently worn out its welcome in some circles where more recent concepts such as behavioral safety and risk assessment have become more popular. Although we may not look at having a safety culture as our ultimate goal any longer, the effects of the climate in which we work certainly should be on our minds. Some of the things we do in safety either can help or hurt the climate, depending on how we set them up. Seemingly, more than any other business parameter, safety has a powerful influence over employee perceptions of climate. If we consider climate at every step, we can end up benefiting tremendously.

Financial Impact

Some of the clients of Lockton Companies Inc. in St. Louis noticed that their industry excellence was not matched by their safety performance, which was only average. Using an accountability-based, climate-conscious approach, they brought their safety performance up to an equivalent high level. One company reported an 80 percent reduction in total incurred claims costs after 2 years of ramping in a culture-conscious accountability system, coinciding with a substantial growth in the size of the company. Frequency of claims dropped, but so did the cost per claim.

Since the few accidents that happened cost 30 percent to 40 percent less than similar accidents before the new system, the improvement traced back to more company-favorable attitudes among injured employees. That shows the value of being climate-conscious in improving the financial decisions employees make.

All employees have the power to make decisions that affect finances. This applies even to new hires at the bottom of the seniority ladder. The idea that all employees have authority to make financial decisions can be a little hard to accept. But it is an insurmountable fact of life. If you don't think that the bulk of your employees can make important decisions that affect the finances of the company as a whole, what about these decisions:

  • Report a minor scrape that they would have ignored had the incident happened at home;
  • Insist on medical treatment that requires a workers' compensation claim (the alternative being first aid on site);
  • Once a claim has been opened, hire a lawyer;
  • Cooperate with light duty;
  • Drag out temporary total disability, or return to work as quickly as possible on restrictions;
  • Exaggerate injury symptoms at the clinic;
  • Show up for work;
  • Work continuously and efficiently;
  • Call OSHA and file a complaint;
  • Follow normal "in-house" channels to address issues;
  • Vote to unionize;
  • Steal tools and inventory;
  • Treat equipment carefully and properly;
  • Care about catching quality issues;
  • Represent the company well to the community, prospective customers and employees.

It's easy to see that each of these decisions has an impact on the bottom line, and they are all squarely in the hands of ordinary employees. And these aren't all of the possible decisions that employees can make that have financial effects.

For that reason, we need to think about the impact everything we do in safety can have on climate. Climate is powerful in determining whether outcomes are favorable or not. For example, informal studies have shown that the cost per workers' compensation claim can fall 30 percent to 40 percent when organizational climate improves. This is a function of improving the decisions employees make during the life of the claim.

Influencing the Climate

With a little thought we can find ways to influence the climate in our own safety and claims management processes. What we're shooting for is a company where pride in the company can exist; where safety is a routine part of the job; where each person is a part of the system, not just a workhorse; ideas are heard and implemented; and there's a sense of balance between the various important operating parameters, including safety. When we have that climate, we'll see real, tangible benefits, many of them financial.

If you think this is too sophisticated a concept for a safety program, or that it's something to think about for "down the road" but not right now, consider that your company already has a climate, and it's constantly being influenced.

Whether it's influenced for better or worse has been left up to chance if an approach hasn't been implemented that is deliberately conscious of the workplace climate.

Some common elements of safety programs can work to undermine and poison the climate. An example of a way to undermine the climate is through a light-duty program. Assigning unpleasant light-duty jobs to injured workers to keep them from getting "too attached" to light-duty work probably seems like a good idea when viewed from within the offices, but it's poison on a plant floor.

Many factory workers have a sense of pride about what they'll willingly do or won't do. Imagine an employee's first day back at work after temporary disability. After work his wife asks, "How was your first day back at work, honey? Did they miss you?" Imagine what that employee says when his day was spent scrubbing toilets: "You won't believe what they've got me doing!"

Light-duty assignments should be carefully chosen to be equivalent to what the employee normally does. Employees should be told upfront that light duty is strictly temporary duty to keep them at work and on the team, and that the job ends when the work runs out. Some inventive safety personnel use light-duty employees to survey MSDS collections, audit lockout procedures and conduct safety inspections as a way to create short-term jobs that make productive use of recovering employees.

To present less-than-pleasant light-duty work to the employee, find a way that doesn't hurt the climate. For example, tell the employee: "We really want to keep you here while you're on restrictions, and the doctor says we should find you light-duty work to help keep you recovering. We have a few jobs for you to choose from that fit the restrictions. Some of them aren't as enjoyable or challenging as your normal work. If you choose one of them, that will help us out. Let me know if it doesn't work out for you and we'll talk about it." (This is in the understanding that the usual rules and laws still apply if the employee refuses to work.)

Safety Management by Everyone

Another way to hurt the climate is to keep the safety program in the hands of a select few, such as the safety director and or members of the safety committee.

Tasks such as accident investigation, regular safety inspections, safety training and behavioral safety observations are usually delegated to a safety director or safety committee. It seems like the right thing to do; after all, who knows better about safety? Perhaps a supervisor brought up through the ranks from the production floor, that's who. It only makes sense to have all the safety activities in the hands of safety people if you're not thinking about climate.

Employees get most of their opinions about the company from the management representative that they see the most: their immediate supervisors. If all a supervisor ever watches, talks about, motivates and cares for is productivity, employees feel that all the company cares about is production. Accident investigations, regular safety inspections, safety training and behavioral safety observations should be accountable responsibilities for supervisors. This helps build the safety climate by letting employees know that their safety is important to their supervisor, which implies that someone cares about them.

Employees who aren't involved in the safety process perceive that their opinions don't matter to the company. Just putting up a suggestion box or announcing an open-door policy won't help much if the immediate supervisor isn't working regularly to show each employee that their opinions and feedback are wanted. We need to actively seek opinions and input, which shows employees we care about them as people. Also, having an opportunity to participate is one of the top attitude-builders. Supervisors should spend a little time every day talking with employees and asking them about their jobs, working conditions, various procedures and so on, seeking to actively draw out employee input.

Employees want to feel loyalty and pride in their jobs, supervisors and workplaces, and will naturally feel that way unless the company does something to discourage that feeling. We can build on that natural urge with a variety of other climate-conscious activities. Some additional activities that can help build a great climate include:

  • An effective, disciplined job rotation, where useful, to reduce the chances of overuse disorders.
  • A wellness initiative, employee health fair or home safety and health seminar.
  • Giving everyone in the plant the authority to write a safety-related work order and encourage employees to make these constructive suggestions through some reasonable means (applicable to valid safety issues of course).
  • As a culture-building process and to free up supervisors, establish hourly employee "specialties" to include small responsibilities in areas such as quality, supplies, scheduling and inventory, 5S, scrap, etc.
  • Schedule some "employee pride" activities throughout the year, such as an open house for families, "employee of the month" contests and company picnics and parties for hourly people.
  • Develop supervisors into better coaches with training and exercises.
  • Have supervisors and employees create a list of safety-critical items for each cell for the supervisors to oversee, and for the employees to maintain. Items such as the tension in tool suspensions, preload on tape guns, condition of hand tools, condition and location of floor mats, guards on machines and employee compliance with standard work procedures are typical items for a safety checklist.

Ultimately, the best safety activities show employees that safety is important to their immediate supervisor, that the people in management care about each employee and that all employees are important to the company.

Accountability is the key to making climate-conscious safety work. Just telling managers to be more conscious of morale will change nothing.

Assign responsible people simple tasks that advance safety and improve the perception of the climate. Each task produces a metric. Those metrics are used as observables for an accountability system. Along with safety, claims handling and return-to-work are also involved because they affect the climate.

This must be senior management-driven, just like any other far-reaching project. It cannot be delegated, but continually must be led through hands-on oversight by senior management.

The accountability part is hard to sell to senior management because they have to make it happen themselves, rather than delegate responsibility down to the safety director. If the senior management wants to delegate, then it's over already because that just won't work.

People usually do what is important to their immediate supervisor and not much more. Duties not linked to the chain of responsibility will usually get dropped. Also, without senior management backing, it's impossible to manage supervisors or department managers who work against the climate.

Being climate-conscious isn't touchy-feely or a single, special project. It's an overall system based in real accountability that aims to improve the way employees think about their jobs, workplace and managers. Working to consider the inherent effects on climate built into everything associated with safety can bring real gains for your company.

Contributing Editor William Kincaid, P.E., CSP, is vice president and senior loss control consultant for Lockton Companies Inc.

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