A good way to experience the best safety practices/programs across industries and organizations is to see them first hand. Sitting down with those who lead them provides an honest perspective on the work involved in transforming a site’s safety culture. This blog summarizes years of safety transformation work. Last week we reviewed four considerations required for a journey to an injury-free workplace. Now we will look at the innovative approaches that leading companies are taking to deal with these four factors.
Most companies have reasonable safety programs in place. They do a good job in both their new hire safety onboarding process and reinforcing safety through their ongoing training programs. Many companies make employees sign a document stating they understand what is expected and will comply. Better companies do not stop there and turn their focus on the likelihood that employees will do what they were trained to do. How?
Assess Attitudes Toward Safety
A Safety Incident at a Chemical Plant: An experienced maintenance employee, with 20 years in his job, fell off a ladder at 10ft and landed on his head. The result? Serious head trauma. It was 2AM and he was a little behind. He needed to perform a routine check on an elevated pressure valve. He made the decision to ascend the ladder without fall protection. After the incident, when asked why he chose not to use the available fall protection, his answer provided all the necessary insight. He said, matter-of-fact like, “You know…to save time!”
Before you pretend to be stunned at such an answer to a direct safety violation question, know that we all bend rules to some degree.
Best Practices: Companies today are assessing the rule-following trait with online safety tests or through worker observations. Those lower in Rule Following, meaning they view rules more as guidelines rather than absolutes, tend to rationalize bending rules that are inconvenient. Others higher in Rule Following avoid these mental gymnastics tendencies. Using a psychometric safety test, workers receive feedback and learn when they are most at risk of bending a safety rule and why. This level of enlightenment provides leading safety indicators individuals can monitor when this may happen and what to do about it. The result? These companies are making safety personal to the individual and reducing safety incidents significantly. Those correctly trained to have these conversations leave the worker feeling positive as the focus changes from Can you? to Will you?
The Leader’s Job: Making Safety Personal by Being Personal
If knowing is all employees need to follow the safety rules, we theoretically could reach the goal of an injury free workplace by placing more safety signs throughout the workplace. Do speed limit signs keep you from speeding? Unlikely. At some point the employees need to personally own their safety by being convinced it is in their best interest. Yet, I find few leaders discussing safety as a personal decision with employees. More common is explaining safety in terms of compliance to a set of rules with negative consequences for breaking those rules. Not very personal but rather very transactional and even threatening.
Leaders play a critical role in site safety and companies with strong safety cultures transform their operational leaders into safety leaders. While they still hold their people to the same safety standards as traditional leaders, these safety leaders make safety less about compliance and more about caring for each other. The message comes across clearly that I need you to care as much about your personal safety as I do. It isn’t as much about breaking a safety rule as it is about how I, as your leader, feel about you putting yourself at risk. I actually care about you!
Individual Safety Journeys are all Unique
The concept of viewing your workforce as individuals, with significant variance in risk-taking behaviors, is tough for most leaders. Not because they don’t believe it, but because they do not understand what to do about it. The first step organizations are taking starts with establishing a base-line for employee’s innate safety propensities. Advance testing now provides highly accurate predictors for future safety behavior, which serve as leading safety indicators. Leaders use this information to provide individualized consideration to each employee so safety messages have more meaning.
Let’s use Beth as an example who is high in Rule Following. She takes pride in knowing the rules and expects others to do the same. She naturally follows them and doesn’t need to be reminded over and over again that she’d better follow the safety rules. Therefore, as Beth’s leader, you may provide a soft landing into a discussion with her regarding a new safety procedure by saying, “Beth, because you are high in Rules, I know you will serve as an example for others regarding the new SOPs for changing out pressure valves.” This reinforces a positive safety trait Beth possess and gives her a sense of pride. Safety conversations when tailored to the individual, take on a deeper sense of meaning. Workers feel the difference and making safety positive is a welcome change.
Not long ago I listened to a plant manager share with a group of production employees a level of honesty about his struggle with personal safety. He started by saying that he always viewed himself as hardworking, technically competent, and willing to do whatever it took to get the job done. That last phrase he explained meant that there were times where he had taken personal risks that he justified as necessary for getting ‘er done! He proceeded to give examples that most could identify with. Then he revealed that he recently learned that he tends to be low in the safety factor Caution, meaning he doesn’t feel much discomfort when exposed to risks, and in some instances, it actually feels gratifying. Then he said, I know many of you know what I’m talking about because some of you are like me. I’m here to tell you I’m working on my personal safety and need your help. He laid out a few key changes that as a leader he knew would make the site safer for all, and asked to them to hold him accountable. The response was overwhelming and positive. Not only did he gain more respect from them, but they also realized the changes he pointed out for himself were important for everyone. The result was an 80% decrease in safety incidents over the next 12 months. The difference? The leader put himself in the employees’ shoes and spoke as a person with safety challenges and not as the expert without blemish.
The journey to an injury free workplace remains the ultimate goal for all organizations. Getting there requires the steps above and of course others. The underlying theme in all this is making safety personal. Once the transition occurs from a rules-based safety culture to one where safety is personal, a new level of engagement takes place which is the precursor for a zero-harm safety culture.