More and more, I hear organizations setting higher safety goals for their workforces, using terms to describe them as Zero Harm or Injury Free. Some go as far as sending leaders offsite for days to safety commitment workshops. There they must articulate their commitment to lofty safety goals, returning as enlightened safety emissaries.
As a safety professional, hearing senior leaders emphasizing safety goals in their communications is somewhat bittersweet. New safety expectations are set, yet how convinced are you that your safety programs will deliver? You have limited time and financial resources to make it all happen, and constantly are competing for a portion of your workforce's mindshare as priorities change daily.
As a safety consultant, brought into large organizations to support their zero harm safety initiatives, I've learned much about what factors need consideration before starting. More importantly, why so many fail. Below I list my top four.
Here are the top four things that should be considered when striving for an injury free workplace:
Can Do v. Will Do attitudes:
How many of your injuries are happening because the employees didn’t have the right safety training? Meaning that if they knew better, they’d do better! Likely not many. Yet, I bet that your corrective action plans following a safety incident include retraining the employee. I see this all the time. Yet, everyone knows that the issue isn’t whether workers can correctly perform the task according to the standard operating procedures (SOP), but rather, will they?
Until safety professionals start considering the psychological elements that come into play when incidents happen, understanding the "will do" piece will not happen. Interestingly, most HR departments use psychometric testing to screen candidates specifically to understand their natural inclination to follow procedures and rules. It's time that safety professionals use similar tools to predict how likely an employee "will do" what they were trained to do. Failing to do this puts your safety implementation at risk, making an injury free workplace less likely.
How personal is the safety initiative?
If you haven't considered the personal side of your initiatives before, this may sound like an odd question. And if that's the case, it's likely that your safety programs focus on compliance rather than employee engagement – and that makes a big difference. When employees perceive safety programs to meet their personal safety needs, they naturally become engaged. They may even take the initiative to promote safety improvement, conducting SOP revisions and joining safety teams.
On the other hand, if a safety program feels cold and detached, those who have limited knowledge of the site’s safety culture, and even less knowledge of those that work there, have limited success and their lessons never go beyond the training session.
Safety behavior modification – adoption rates vary
Safety programs always require behavior modification. In other words, “What am I doing now that I need to change to work more safely?” Even more importantly, is the "needed change" the same for all, or do some have more work to do than others? Most training programs are based on the premise that if employees knew better, they’d do better; no consideration is given to the differences among the individuals being trained. For this reason, there is a large variance in the training’s effectiveness. Those who need it the most (e.g. the less safe workers), get the least out of it when it doesn't address their personal improvement areas.
In contrast, individuals who are naturally inclined to behave safely and naturally "click" with the safety concepts they're being introduced to, will get the most out of these sessions. This paradox greatly reduces the program’s effectiveness. Safety programs that don't identify the makeup of trainees often miss the mark on over two thirds of those trained.
Leadership – Who owns the program?
To answer this question, I typically sit in the back of the room and listen as a plant manager, a corporate safety manager, an area manager, or a front line leader talks to employees about the new safety initiative. Here's what I'm listening for: does that leader come across as a mere messenger or does he own the message himself? If the leader starts with “We have been asked to comply with the new corporate safety initiative regarding...”, I know employee engagement will be low. Strong leaders take the time to first, learn about the program, then to experience it, and then to promote it. If your site leaders do not lead your safety initiative, the chances of even the best safety programs taking off are low.