Written by Carl Potter, CSP, CMC
In my work, I’ve observed companies that seem to have the most successful safety and health management programs put their employees at the center of the process. This means that employees are actively involved not only because they are expected to be, but because they want to be.
Management commitment and involvement strongly influence employee interest and culture in the safety process. Without strong evidence that managers value safety and health, you’ll have a hard time getting employees to be involved in the process.
Let’s look at three safety cultures: ZILCH, NO TOLERANCE and ZERO INJURY.
In the ZILCH safety culture employee safety meetings are rare. They are boring and irrelevant, put on by managers or supervisors who are preoccupied with other things such as production problems and labor issues. Over half of the employees do not attend these meetings. What’s the use? Their input and ideas are not even considered. Often when employees bring hazardous conditions to their manager or supervisor’s attention, the information is reluctantly accepted. Few employees dare to even mention unsafe practices to their co-workers for fear of reprisal. No wonder the attitude towards safety is lackadaisical and the lost time or severity rate continues to climb. This type of company is headed towards a major catastrophe.
Now consider the NO TOLERANCE safety culture. Because safety is viewed by management and supervision from a compliance perspective, the employees are constantly looking over their shoulders to see who is watching and wondering when they will “get in trouble.” Employees are negative when managers and supervisors, or safety professional’s come on site to conduct observations or inspections. Employees think, “Why do they always show up?”, “Can’t they find something better to do?”, and “All they want to do is find something wrong so they can punish me.” Accident investigations are treated and viewed as inquisitions for the sole purpose of placing blame. From the employee perspective, everything is about the numbers. Statistics are used to describe virtually every aspect of safety in the organization. Very little attention is paid to the workers and their concerns. Their first-hand knowledge of the work and the associated hazards is not valued.
The company with a ZERO INJURY culture has it figured out. Employees are involved in virtually every area of the safety and health management process. They want to be involved because managers and supervisors encourage their input and recognize their contributions. In fact, employees are acting as safety professionals and are supported by leadership from the supervisory level all the way to the boardroom. In a culture, such as ZERO INJURY, everyone looks out for one another by pointing out the areas for improvement, seeking in put about safely performing work, and congratulating others for a job done safely. Employees provide input into the safety and health management process by participating in activities such as audits, incident investigations, self-inspections, suggestion programs and safety planning.
In a safety culture where zero injuries are the target, employees concerns and suggestions are documented and followed-up on by managers and supervisors. The follow-up actions are documented and feedback about the outcomes is provided to employees. In this culture employees are regularly trained for the work they need to perform with an emphasis on safe work practices. Training is not viewed as a “hammer” or as a form of punishment for those who have been injured. The practice of using positive reinforcement increases safe behavior. In a ZERO INJURY culture where employees are represented by a bargaining unit, employees are very much engaged in these activities because management has spent time working with union leadership to gain a mutual understanding of the importance of safety.
All in all, the employees take pride in their safety performance and are true professionals. ZERO INJURY is a culture where safety, quality, and production are a seamless part of their work because from the top down every employee’s personal workplace values are safety, quality, and production in that order, every time on the job.
Creating a safety culture focused on preventing injuries must exist in an environment of trust. With regard to safety, all stakeholders must equally seek trust. Executives through supervision are responsible for providing a workplace free of recognized hazards that can cause harm to employees. On the other hand, employees are responsible for following rules, work practices, and using all the tools provided that reduce risk through proper mitigation tactics. Safety professionals are ambassadors of a supportive safety culture and must be allowed to do their jobs, but also work in concert with the operational environment so the organization can stay in business. The shared philosophy among all the stakeholders must be that “No injury is worth meeting a production goal” and there must be a commitment to planning and executing work with safety, quality, and production, with safety being the highest value. When an organization develops a successful safety culture that can be called ZERO INJURY it is a good bet that they will have workplace where it is difficult to get hurt.