“If you put good people in bad systems, you get bad results. You have to water the flowers you want to grow.” Stephen Covey
When you think of workplace safety, what comes to mind? We tend to associate safety with hardhats and safety glasses. However, workplace safety is influenced by factors beyond the proper use of personal protective equipment. Job stress, for instance, leads to a loss of focus—a common cause of workplace incidents. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important, as Americans are working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, to be aware of the many factors that can influence the safety of employees and to be proactive in establishing a positive safety culture.
Workplace Safety is Multifaceted
Although many think of safety as simple (follow the rules and do what you’re supposed to, and you won’t get hurt), it’s not easy. Safety cannot depend exclusively on standards and procedures. Procedures may be wholesome, well written, and easy to follow, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a facility is safe. Safety also depends on an effective program and a positive safety culture, on attention to detail and acknowledgement of the many facets that contribute to safety and their role in the workplace.
Leaders and their guidance have enormous influence on our day-to-day lives. As children we look to our parents, as teenagers and young adults we look to our guidance counselors and teachers, and as employees in the workforce we look to management. That influence is why leadership plays such a key role in workplace safety.
Being an effective leader in a positive safety culture means being involved with employees and understanding their needs. Emphasizing, discussing, and encouraging safe performance leads to safer performance. Acknowledgement also plays a role. While a typical employee works for money, positive feedback and acknowledgement of a job well done will motivate them to exceed expectations. Acknowledging safer performance with rewards, however, must be done with care. Rewarding safe behavior is a useful method of motivation, but OSHA takes a very dim view of rewards that even appear to encourage non-reporting.
There is a term, “boss watcher”. It refers to employees who closely observe management, scrutinizing their every action. Even though boss watchers can be irksome, leaders can learn from their scrutiny and organizations can benefit. When a leader knows they are being watched, they can use that as an opportunity to set an example. When a leader establishes an expectation for safety by leading the charge, employees will follow suit.
There are two forms of performance expectations. There are individual performance expectations—the expectations that are discussed in a year-end review if they are discussed at all. Then there are group performance expectations—the expectations that involve things like production speed and quotas. Both group and individual expectations play a role in workplace safety.
Performance reviews are a now a time-honored tradition. Both employers and employees rely on them as a means of measurable judgement of performance. They are also an opportunity to set goals for an employee for the coming year. Goal setting is crucial to establishing a positive employee mindset. Individual safety goals are a great addition to yearly performance goals, so long as they, like safety rewards, do not encourage non-reporting.
Quotas help to define expectations. However, when too much is expected, it creates stress. To meet demanding goals, employees begin taking shortcuts and safety is usually the first to fall by the wayside. Increased stress also results in more lapses and mistakes, which result in incidents.
Any performance expectation, safety or otherwise, should be realistic and attainable. Employees who feel as though they can achieve their goals are more productive, more engaged, and happier overall. Contented workers are less likely to make mistakes or experience lapses, which means less incidents and a safer work environment.
On February 10, 2016, OSHA cited Sawyer Tree Service for four serious safety violations. This was after OSHA completed its investigation into a logger’s death that occurred the previous year. Among the four violations was one for inadequate training, stating that the company failed to train employees in equipment operation and recognizing logging hazards. While some regard training as a waste of time and resources, it’s importance to the safety culture of an organization is evident when considering incidents such as this.
One of the most common complaints about training is its repetitiveness. When the same training is repeated month after month, year after year, it may begin to bore employees. Repetitive training, however, conditions response. If employees practice safe performance in a low-pressure environment, so that it becomes habitual, they will become conditioned to respond correctly in a high pressure, real-life situation. Habitual safety makes employees feel better prepared and more secure in their roles.
Since training is so important to safety, it is important for training to be more than a “check the box” experience. It should be ongoing and involved. Even though there is a tendency for repetitive training to become monotonous, it is still better for employees to be interested and engaged, so they will be more open to learning opportunities and more receptive to training material.
Brick by Brick
Leadership, performance expectations, and training aren’t the only factors that affect workplace safety. However, they are a solid foundation on which to build. Efforts to improve the quality of these and other components that affect workplace safety do not go undetected. Employees notice improvements, and employees who feel safe at work are happier, more productive, and generally more loyal to the company for which they work, which means less turnover and more stability. Invest in leadership and training and maintain achievable performance expectations. The investment is worthwhile. When you set your employees up for success, the organization will succeed as well.