Building Safety

People live more of their time off-work than on – though some may not feel that way – so why don't most companies have focused and strong at-home safety interventions?

You already know that safety is not only for the workplace. An injury suffered off the job keeps an employee away from work as surely as one suffered at work, so wise employers expand the focus of their safety programs to include the hours when employees are away from work.

While no article can replace specific planning and implementation customized to your workforce, culture and exposures, I’ll provide proven guidelines for boosting off-work safety lifestyles.

When you’re trying to create change, it’s always good strategy to:

  1. Identify the real blockages to desired new actions so you can plan to minimize these obstacles;
  2. Determine and communicate benefits to draw people to adopt new behaviors; and
  3. Create a structure to support the changes, including reinforcers. Follow these basic guidelines to develop around-the-clock safety thinking and actions.

Why Not Off-Work Safety?

It’s smart to first look at the reasons why at-home safety is not more highly developed. These might include the fact that employee actions on the job are difficult to control. Many EHS professionals don’t have the confidence or perceived ability to lastingly change behavior at work. If this is the case, how can they even attempt to do this off-work?

No question; you can’t control workers’ actions off the job. But then again, it’s an illusion to believe you can control them at work. In an era where more and more employees are working with reduced supervision – or even pretty much on their own – it’s impossible to monitor their hourly actions, much less control them.
Combine structural thinning with a more educated and less-trusting workforce and you wind up with employees who just won’t do as they’re told at work, much less at home.

Sometimes at-home safety programs suffer because of fear of potential pushback from employees. As in, “You don’t mess with my privacy,” “Stay out of my personal life. It’s none of your business” and more. Again, the key to change is to respect others’ personal choices, but offer (not pressure) them information, as well as methods they may want to use to improve their health and safety and that of the people for whom they care.

Overemphasis on measuring incidence rates and other at-work trailing indicators has contributed to less emphasis on at-home or off-the-job safety. Perhaps this is due to past-century, budgetary in-the-box thinking that safety was about cutting workers’ comp claims, “period!”

No matter how strongly employees are cajoled or commanded, they will not be able to leave their work at work and home at home. They don’t remove their working skeletal structure, muscles and nerves at the end of their shift and replace them with fresh at-home ones. Incidents and problems off-work don’t stay neatly within a medical claim box. Back pain from gardening or sports activities can transfer into workers’ compensation claims as well as increased medical costs, something that increasingly plagues corporations.

True, you can’t accurately monitor or measure what you don’t see. But, as Warren Buffett reminds us, it’s important to focus on what’s meaningful, rather than just on what’s measurable. And there are ways to indirectly monitor off-work safety through surveys of family members and other feedback systems that encourage reporting of off-work safety.

I urge you to first dispassionately identify mental obstacles to incorporating strong off-work safety interventions – in your department, within senior leadership and in workers – and do not allow these obstacles to block important programming.

Making a Case for At-Home Safety

Here’s ammunition for supporting strong at-home safety interventions.

First, employees spend more time off-work than on. You can help employees be less prone to injuries that can carry over to work by reaching them where they (literally) live and addressing potential hazards. Personal injury risk is determined by the number and length of exposures as well as potential injury severity. Off-work, people are at risk for driving injuries; slips, trips and falls; strains and sprains; chemical exposures; and more.

In short, they are at risk for many of the same injuries they might experience at work. Because people may be more mobile in their personal lives, driving injuries and slips, trips and falls can be even greater risks.

The ultimate leading indicator of safe actions is baseline behavior – what people do when they’re not being observed, not preoccupied with a task, not consciously thinking of being safe or don’t care who’s watching. Think of your mission as helping people develop positive safety habits. Just as it is unlikely employees will wear their seatbelts in a company vehicle but not in their own cars, it is not likely they will lift similar objects one way at work and a different way at home.

Rather than expecting workers to switch safety on when they come to work, just the opposite can occur. I don’t think it’s a coincidence many companies report injuries occurring disproportionately on a worker’s first day back from vacation or weekend time off. This is what we call a MISS - Monday’s injury safety syndrome.

If you want employees to be safer at home and at work, help them become more receptive to your safety message. In my experience, workers often resist being shown how to be more effective and safer in jobs they’ve done for many years. But I’ve found the more resistant people are to learning new ways to operate at work, the better it is to show them how to be more effective and safer in the off-work activities they see as truly important to them. Help your workers understand that by practicing safe actions at work, they can develop skills to help them where it really counts – at home and in their favorite activities.

Reduce exposure to cumulative injuries at work if you want to reduce injuries at home. Because many sprains and strains are the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back cumulative in nature, it’s important to reduce exposure and concentration of forces into vulnerable body parts (back, wrists, knees, neck, shoulders, ankles) at home, where employees spend 75 percent of their lives (assuming a 40-hour work week).

If you’re trying to develop new default actions, encourage practice. One exposure (e.g. in a training seminar) is unlikely to change behavior. But when people apply newly learned strategies and skills off-work, they can build baseline actions that apply everywhere.

Create a culture of safety directors and coaches to improve on- and off-work safety. Help all your employees become effective, thinking, acting safety directors of their own homes and lives. Global class safety performance is founded on organizational members engaging in a high-level safety lifestyles everywhere they work, live and play.

We frequently see companies turn employees into coaches when they are provided with information, strategies and methods they see as valuable and applicable to their families and then given the suggestion to take these methods home. They further learn, reinforce and remotivate themselves by coaching, responding to questions and showing how what they’ve learned can specifically help their family members. For example, by teaching children how to protect themselves while mowing the lawn (checking out equipment in advance, thinking through the best path, PPE, good use of applied strength techniques for controlling the mower, etc.), they also are further anchoring these safety principles in themselves. Through their own initiatives or through the reminders they give their children, they become more likely to engage in proper safety behavior themselves.

Consider redirecting safety from enforcement towards engagement. Enforcement is limited and the results can be frustrating when employees aren’t doing what they’re being asked to do. And a forceful approach can backfire, resulting in pushback behaviors from workers determined to show they won’t be told what to do. Too often, these defiant actions are unsafe ones. It’s better to positively offer benefits than try to force compliance.

Getting Off-Work Safety to Work Well

There are some “secrets” to boosting off-work safer actions. People have to see the value of safety to their preferred at-home activities. You have no direct control of what workers do at home; they have to want to use safety methods and skills everywhere. Think this is impossible? I’ve seen and helped this happen in hundreds of companies worldwide. The key is to get employees’ attention by showing applications relevant to them. You can accomplish this in several ways.

First, know in advance what activities spark your employees – sports like golf, tennis and softball or at-home hobbies such as gardening or woodworking. These performance-based activities can be improved by more effective use of planning, use of PPE, better balance and leveraged strength – all skills that can be acquired within the safety realm.

Connect your safety messages to what is already important to employees. For example, helping children be more effective in their activities (e.g. soccer, football or other sports) and encouraging safety in children, older adults and others. Remind workers they are the safety directors of their own homes and offer methods they can use to keep guests and loved ones safer. For example, when covering hazardous communications training at the worksite, you might ask workers to bring in chemicals they use in at home, then be prepared with MSDSs for common materials. Focus on ways to guard against problems and what to immediately do if someone is exposed.

Mike Hagenbarth, corporate environmental and safety compliance manager for Rock-Tenn, reports good success with custom-developed home safety presentations, evaluations and checklists – both in English and Spanish – that focus on common issues driving safety: hazardous materials in the home, slip/trip/fall prevention, fire prevention and preparedness, carbon monoxide safety and firearm safety (this last topic stirs lots of worker interest). The evaluations motivate employees to bring the information back and take action to make their homes safer (and spark energized conversation with many family members).

Make employees believe it is possible for them to learn and use the information you are providing. Make sure your expectations are focused, meaningful and minimal. Think “adjustments” rather than expecting massive changes. The more you ask of people – especially when they not on the clock – the less likely they are to do anything.

Avon’s Regional EHS Manager Kenyon Brenish has implemented a soft-tissue injury prevention process in the cosmetic company’s distribution/logistics centers that emphasizes techniques that utilize very small changes in attention and position to realize significant and immediately discernible improvements in balance, usable strength and lessened tension. The training incorporates many at-home applications. Workers report using these methods at home, for themselves and their family members, with gratifying results.

Involve your employees in the process. There are many ways to activate workers to step up to safety when they know they won’t be monitored; Rock-Tenn’s home safety checklist is but one way to do it.

Terry Powell, safety manager for Kimberly-Clark’s Neenah (Wisconsin) Cold Spring Facility, said their safety coordinator, Kelly Panzenhagen, designed an off-work safety program aptly-named “Learning From Each Other.” Employees send in stories – some with photos – of off-work incidents that happen to them so peers can learn to avoid similar problems. These accounts, which may be submitted anonymously, are posted in-plant or emailed to everyone. In addition, workers are encouraged to take PPE – such as hearing and eye protection – home to use.

In addition to increased engagement, does this approach get tangible results? The Neenah facility went 1 year without a recordable injury, and on August 21 reached 1 million safety hours, at least in part due to the energy and focus generated by “Learning From Each Other.”

Reinforce the at-home safety message. This entails both continually improving your at-home safety program so it doesn’t become stale and reminding workers to apply learned methods.

Incentives may help. According to Don Burkhart, safety manager with BP’s Wamsutter (Wyoming) Operations Center, “A lot of people look at off-the-job safety as interference by the company in their personal lives. We have to handle the topic and any program very gently. We started the program in 2004 and have updated it every year since.”

BP Wamsutter’s Off-The-Job Safety Program encourages employees to “work and play safely” and includes reimbursing employees and their families for taking non-work-related safety courses such as defensive driving courses, hunter safety, motorcycle safety, etc., and for at-home safety equipment including bicycle helmets, fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and CO detectors, child safety seats and table saw guards.

In addition, BP Wamsutter mails off-work safety publications to each employee’s home. And workers can receive financial incentives for reporting off-work potential hazards, near-misses and “direct hits.” Burkhart reports a large number of BP Wamsutter employees have made use of the reimbursements and have responded positively to the safety publications.

There is no question you also can boost reinforcement through employee and family member interviews and posted reports (like Kimberly-Clark Neenah). As far back as the 1990s, Exxon Offshore Division had a strong and well-accepted program whereby each employee was asked to designate one family member to become a Home Safety Leader. These leaders were given regular training in off-the-job safety topics – I made one of these presentations on preventing slips/trips/falls – as well as receiving regular communications and offering feedback. During this time, Exxon Offshore Division workers went over 1 million hours without a lost-time injury, this in high-hazard potential Gulf of Mexico drilling operations.

Building a Safety Culture Begins at Home

Granted, acceptance of off-work safety as a concept isn’t new. Now, in a work environment where workers are doing more with less and aging to boot, it’s a perfect time to upgrade your off-the-job safety approach. Go beyond once-a-year safety fairs or occasional mentions of off-work applications for safety training and move towards a tangible, structured, practical and motivating off-the-job safety system.

Offer everyone in your organization the inspiration and tools to become self-motivated and self-regulating. Provide mental strategies and physical skills they readily can port to a wide range of off-work activities. Show them specific applications that are home-based (for example, the same methods for pushing a heavy cart at work can also apply to pushing a filled shopping cart).

The lines between work and home, once highly separated, are blurring. By focusing on all-the-time safety thought and actions, and emphasizing off-work approaches, you significantly can improve safety everywhere to the next level, as well as boosting receptivity, personal responsibility and motivation.

Robert Pater is a safety consultant, trainer and author, and is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates (

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