SAFETY PERSPECTIVES

Falls at Work Cause 2 Deaths a Day: 4 Ways to Influence Change

Posted by  Esteban Tristan, Ph.D.

safe leaders prevent fallsFACT: Every DAY, two people die in the United States as a result of a fall at work. Yes, that’s right – two deaths per day, according to the National Safety Council.

As you probably know, June is National Safety Month and this week, the National Safety Council’s focus is on Fall Prevention.  It may be surprising to you that in the year 2018 we still have that many fall-related fatalities on the job.  Sadly, we still have a long way to go when it comes to preventing deaths and serious injuries due to falls.  Here are some other sobering facts:

  • Falls from height are second leading cause of unintentional workplace fatalities

  • Falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry

  • More than half of all fatal falls occur in the construction and utilities industries

  • Over 40% of falls to a lower level result in over a month of lost workdays

  • Fall protection was by far the most frequently cited OSHA violation in 2017, just like it was in 2016

Clearly, fall prevention continues to be a major challenge at workplaces throughout the U.S., particularly in the construction industry.  We’ve known this for quite some time, and yet companies continue to violate the very rules that are designed to prevent these fatal and life-altering events.

So what can leaders do differently to prevent falls within their own job sites?  While there is not one simple answer to this, there are some simple but critical safety leader behaviors that each individual leader can demonstrate in order to help prevent fall-related deaths and injuries.  We can refer to these as the “L.E.A.D. Model” of safety leadership.

1. Lay Out Your Vision

First things first.  Do employees at your work site know and understand all fall protection policies?  What are you basing that on?  Many falls occur due to improper knowledge regarding fall prevention policies or equipment.  This is where a leader must communicate clearly and frequently what the requirements are, what the proper PPE is, and ensure that workers are crystal clear on the company’s expectations for fall prevention. This is especially important when it comes to situations where there is low perceived risk, such as working just a few inches above the 6-foot requirement, or in situations where it is difficult to find an adequate place to tie off.  Whatever the policies and expectations are, an effective safety leader lays out a clear vision of what is expected at all times in order to prevent falls. 

Second, is your vision compelling or motivating?  Or are you just telling workers what the corporate policy is?  If employees can tell that you have a personal stake in their safety, and that you really believe in the process, they are more likely to follow fall prevention and protection policies not just because they are required to, but because it’s in their best personal interest.  By laying out a vision that is clear, motivating and personal, a safety leader can help ensure that everyone is on the same page.

2. Embrace Change

Many of you can probably relate to the challenge of introducing new safety policies related to fall prevention.  Perhaps it was switching to new PPE (e.g., retractable lanyards) or introducing new guarding or scaffolding requirements when working at heights.  Oftentimes these changes might seem simple and logical to us, but they are met with much resistance in our workforce – especially from the more experienced employees who remember “how we used to do things before all of this safety stuff.”  Effective safety leaders must constantly help employees to understand and embrace these changes.  This means leading the change actively by communicating the change early on to workers, explaining clearly the reasons for the policy changes, and pointing out the benefits of the change.  As a safety leader, you should always give people the “W.I.I.F.M. (“What’s in it for me?) so that they know why and how the change will help them.  They may not like the change, but they are more likely to respect and understand the need for it if you take the time to explain the facts. 

Related: The Power of Why When Communicating Employee Safety

Other behaviors that can help you to drive fall protection changes are being adaptable yourself, and being open to new ideas.  It’s awfully hard to help people adjust to new safety policies if you don’t agree with it yourself, so it’s important to first adapt to the change yourself so you can explain it well to others.  And when implementing the changes, some workers will likely have great ideas for how they can make the change process run more smoothly; a wise safety leader will take the time to listen to these suggestions and actively solicit ideas from the people who do the job on a daily basis.  All of these simple behaviors – being adaptable, communicating the change actively, and being open to suggestions – can help you be more successful when implementing new fall prevention policies.

3. Act As A Coach

Successful safety leaders are more like a coach than a strict disciplinarian or a friendly “buddy.”  They influence people to work safely through a variety of behaviors over time, and avoid coming across as the prototypical “safety cop” while still being able to hold people accountable for safety when necessary.  So how can a leader act more like a coach?  There are two very important behaviors required for this: active listening and providing feedback.

  • Active listening: We must be willing to listen – not just passively but actively – to what people are saying. When we choose to actively listen as a leader, we give employees the opportunity to ask important questions, voice their opinion, or explain why they did something a certain way.  It creates a two-way dialogue and shows respect for them as a person, which goes a long way.  If a supervisor sees that a worker is wearing their safety harness too loosely, asking questions first and actively listening may reveal valuable information that we want to know.  The worker may not know they are wearing it incorrectly.  Or they may explain that the working conditions or the equipment itself make it very uncomfortable to wear properly.  They may still need to change their behavior, but it is critical for the supervisor to understand their level of understanding and the actual working conditions. Actively listening puts you in a position to get this information more frequently, and that’s a good thing. Read more: Why Communication is Essential to Building a Strong Safety Culture

  • Providing feedback: Our research on safety culture has found that regardless of industry, one of the most consistent gaps for organizations is that leaders provide very little feedback to employees on safety behaviors. A good safety leader provides two types of feedback – positive reinforcement (when people do something safely or expend extra effort on safety) and constructive feedback (when people do something unsafely).  This feedback should be given as soon as possible after observing the behavior, and should be highly specific.  A well-intentioned, “Great job!” comment is nice, but it accomplishes very little.  The employee doesn’t necessarily learn what they did well, when they did it, or why it was good. So what can we give feedback to our employees on when it comes to fall prevention behaviors?  Lots of things!  Here are just a few examples:

    • Exactly when fall arrest equipment is needed and how to wear it correctly

    • Using adequate anchor points

    • How to properly inspect a safety harness for wear and tear

    • Guarding leading edges, roof hatches or skylights when working on rooftops

So when you see employees make mistakes or engage in behaviors that put them at risk of a fall, use these situations as learning opportunities and make the most out of them through active listening, coaching and effective (i.e., in the moment, specific) behavioral feedback.

4. Demonstrate Credibility

You can talk all day long to your employees about using the right type of ladder or using their safety harness at all times, but it will mean absolutely nothing if they see you breaking these fall prevention rules or if they sense that you only enforce those rules when it’s convenient.  Here are some simple questions to do a “self-check” in terms of your credibility as a safety leader when it comes to fall prevention:

  • Do you personally follow all fall prevention policies and procedures 100% of the time?

  • Would employees say that you enforce fall prevention/protection policies consistently and fairly, without making exceptions for certain individuals?

  • Do you show a sense of urgency about mitigating fall hazards when they arise? How long does it take you to respond or take action when guarding needs to be installed or when fall arrest equipment needs to be replaced?

  • How do your actions demonstrate a visible commitment to preventing falls? Do you invest the time, resources, money and energy into fall prevention training, initiatives, equipment installation, etc.?

If you feel that you could improve in one or more of these areas, you are not alone.  But the important thing is to take action rather than waste time feeling guilty or being in denial.  Every day there are many opportunities to show credibility as a safety leader and to demonstrate that you are truly invested in saving lives through fall prevention and fall protection efforts.  You just need to capitalize upon those opportunities!

In conclusion, using the framework of these four simple behaviors of the L.E.A.D. Model (Laying Out Your Vision, Embracing Change, Acting As A Coach, and Demonstrating Credibility) can help you to more proactively and effectively save employee lives and prevent fall related injuries in your workplace.

Four Behaviors of Safe Leaders - The L.E.A.D. Model

Tags:   safety communication, safety commitment, safety culture

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D.

Esteban is the Director of Safety Solutions at Select International. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.

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