AIHce 2010: Zombie Walkers: Safety Initiatives to Awaken Your Employees

May 26, 2010
They walk among us: zombie employees who have grown complacent and seem oblivious to safety procedures. At the 2010 American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce), Steve Laughlin of CJ & K Training Services offered attendees tips to awaken these zombies and create a safer workplace.

Laughlin brought a streak of energy into the conference room in Denver on May 25 as he discussed these at-risk zombie employees.

“Apparently, there is an affirmative action program in this country for dummies,” he cracked. “Every company is required to hire a certain number of idiots. I can tell a lot of you have already met your quota … The politically correct term for dummies is ‘zombie walkers.’”

All jokes aside, Laughlin said that becoming comfortable and complacent in routine tasks is a real concern for any worker. While safety training often addresses non-routine work, Laughlin explained that he was more worried about routine work and the employees who do the same thing day in and day out.

“This is how zombie workers get created,” he said. After time, “they do things now they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in the beginning. Never confuse luck with safety.”

This is a problem, he stressed, that EHS professionals need to address.

“At some point, we [EHS professionals] are responsible for this,” he added. “We’re part of the problem. We have to find a way to get through to these people and can’t keep relying on the same old run-of-the-mill stuff.”

Laughlin offered a few creative initiatives to snap employees out of their “zombie” ways.

Uniforms for everyone. Laughlin worked with a company that placed every employee, from the CEO on down, in the same uniform, complete with an embroidered nametag. This destroyed the sense of a hierarchy and helped employees get to know each other. “The amount of teamwork and openness at this plant is something I’ve never seen before,” Laughlin said.

Public speaking. If an employee violates a safety policy or becomes injured, he or she must provide safety training (while paired with an EHS representative) to the entire department to explain how and why the injury occurred.

Games. Find ways to incorporate games, activities and interaction into training programs whenever possible to keep employees interested and involved. For a new twist on old games, like safety bingo, try safety poker. Employees can receive playing cards when they are observed working safely; at the end of the week, the employee with the best hand wins.

Top-down attendance. One of Laughlin’s clients tied their manager bonuses to attending safety classes, essentially making safety training part of the management evaluation process. “How much will employees think of the training program if the management doesn’t attend?” Laughlin asked.

Posters on the move. Many companies are guilty of hanging safety posters and leaving them there – for years. After time, these posters become invisible to workers. Laughlin suggested purchasing a stock of posters, rotating them and moving them to different places to better grab the workers’ attention.

“Why I work safely” buttons. Employees can wear buttons or cards featuring pictures of their loved ones with the phrase “Why I work safely” printed across the top. This reminds everyone of the importance of going home safe and sound at the end of the day.

Safety walk. Take employees on a “safety walk” to encourage them to look at the plant with new eyes, as if they were safety professionals. Employees should point out any violations they might notice. Simply providing employees with the time to think about safety can make a difference, and according to Laughlin, EHS professionals might be surprised to find what workers notice.

Step outside the OSHA box. The challenge, Laughlin said, is getting management to understand OSHA is a minimum standard – the very least you can do. Consider engaging employees to help develop the site safety plan to go above and beyond OSHA regulations.

Potty training. (No, not that kind.) Consider placing safety information above urinals or inside bathroom stalls. “They’ve got nothing else to do,” Laughlin joked. The information could even be tied to prizes, such as “find the safety hazard” picture challenges.

The pig of shame. Another client of Laughlin’s purchased a stuffed pig and “awarded” it to the department deemed to have the worst housekeeping practices. The losing employees are each photographed with the pig, and the pictures are hung in the cafeteria. “It becomes a good-natured competition to not be in the department who gets the pig,” Laughlin said. He added that housekeeping at this company vastly improved.

Crash test dummy. Another company purchased a crash test dummy and tagged it whenever someone got injured. An injured hand, for example, would get tagged with a short blurb of what happened. Employers can use a poster or chalkboard drawing instead of purchasing a crash test dummy.

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About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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