What does workplace safety really mean?
Employee safety is more than just harnesses and headgear. Here’s how to create a positive safety culture in your organization using experience data and insights.
Workplaces may be safer now than in the past, but there are still significant gaps to close in many businesses. As well as the human impact, workplace incidents cost businesses in financial terms.
According to data from OSHA, employers pay an estimated $1billion (US) each week in direct worker compensation alone. There are also indirect costs to bear, including hiring and training new staff to cover absence, repairs to equipment, decreases in employee morale, increased absenteeism, and less engagement.
What can we do to address the problem?
When we think about employee safety, the image that comes to mind is often one of rules, protocols, and warning notices. These tools have their role to play, but more important is the development of an underlying safety culture.
Building a safety culture means creating a strong bond of trust between team members and their leadership. In these environments the emphasis is on sharing responsibility for safety and being proactive about looking out for one another and everyone’s well-being.
Rules and protocols can be embedded as part of this culture and will help protect individuals in potentially dangerous situations. But without the deeper relationship of trust and the vision of everyone keeping each other safe, their power is limited.
Being proactive is key
In some businesses, the idea of zero incidents (i.e. zero occasions where harm has come to someone in the workplace) is believed to be an impossible goal. Believing that getting hurt on the job is inevitable can have a hugely negative effect on an organization’s culture as well as the morale and engagement of individual team members.
However, zero incidents is absolutely a possibility. More than that, it’s a goal to strive for.
Remember that safety within a business affects people far beyond the business. It can have an impact on the whole community, especially if the business is a large one. If your spouse is injured at work, it affects you, it affects your children, friends, and wider family. That’s one reason among many to prioritize workplace safety.
Trust culture vs. blame culture
In companies where a zero incident count is believed to be impossible, there’s an environment where the company’s safety commitment is a point of doubt or fear. The idea of inevitable failure also goes hand in hand with a culture of blame around safety. Who’ll be the person who makes the mistake?
When you survey employees about workplace safety, an important question to ask is whether safety incidents are seen as a chance to learn, or a chance to blame others. Results on this question can be very revealing about how employees perceive the organization’s commitment to safety.
Safety vs. production pressure
Safety concerns often come to the fore when there’s high pressure to perform and get results. That’s because there has always been a natural tension between the priorities of safety and production.
Safety-focused behaviors take time and require thought and care. They often conflict with the need to be productive and work quickly. And of course, it’s at times when employees are working at speed and under pressure that safety incidents are more likely to happen.
Lead by example
Leadership has an important role to play in addressing the safety vs production dynamic and taking a firm position on it. Too often, there’s a mixed message around safety that leaves the problem in the employee’s hands. This can lead to them feeling they have to make difficult decisions about whether to take proper safety precautions or to cut corners for the sake of speed.
Workplace safety tools and tricks
Self-protective and team-protective behaviors can arise naturally out of a strong safety culture, but they can also happen in a ritualized, process-driven way. Here are some examples that can be simply introduced in any business.
- Safety moments
A safety moment is any part of your day-to-day that’s focused on safety, whether it’s an explanation of where the fire escapes are at the start of a regular meeting, or a demonstration of life jackets on a commercial flight. Some safety moments are mandated by regulations, but they don’t have to be. You can introduce safety moments as part of your routine which can contribute immensely to building a positive safety culture.
- Lock-out tag-out (and other daily protocols)
Lock-out tag-out is a formal procedure for making potentially dangerous equipment safe after use, and ‘tagging’ of the equipment by the person who shut it down. Ensuring workers always engage in this behavior is vital to building a culture of safety.
- Keeping your work areas clean
Even if lock-out tag-out is not required, good practices like cleaning and tidying away workspaces after use can contribute to prioritizing safety and enhancing your safety culture.
- Safety heroes and role models
A big part of building a safer workplace is socializing safety. One way to do this is by creating role models who are safety champions. This can be very effective in industries where junior staff are apprentices or are entering the workforce for the first time.
- Environmental cues
Regular reminders in the form of posters, screens or stickers can help embed a safety-conscious culture. These could include
- Digital signage showing the number of days since the last incident
- Safety quotes, tips and messages at work stations/job sites
- Safety memorabilia, such as accolades which reflect a tradition of valuing safety highly
The role of measurement
Companies routinely measure safety metrics and comply with OSHA workplace standards. However, traditional safety metrics tend to focus on results and outcomes, and rarely reflect how employees perceive their own safety.
Measuring employee perceptions and collecting experience data (X-data) as well as operational data (O-data) around safety can give you a more robust view of the safety culture in your organization, and how it can be strengthened.
You can survey employees about their understanding of safety using an experience management program such as Qualtrics XM. As a Qualtrics customer, you’ll have access to the Workplace Safety Guided Solution, developed by our EX Consultants and I/O Psychologists, to help you double-click on assessing safety in your organization..
Safety experience metrics
Measurements of these areas can provide leading indicators of safety and help you monitor the health of your safety culture.
- Strong leadership
Strong leadership will always take ethical decisions and take ownership of safety by expressing clearly to employees that safety cannot be compromised for the sake of productivity.
- Dialogue around safety within teams
Do team members talk about safety and share ideas about how to maintain it? Do they feel a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for keeping everyone safe? The more safety is discussed, the more of a priority it is.
- Relationship between union and non-union employees
The quality of relations between these groups can provide insights on how your staff perceive the tension between safety and productivity.
- Reporting near misses
A near-miss, where an incident could have happened or was narrowly averted, can be a telling metric to track. When staff feel that they may be blamed for a near-miss, or it may be seen as a black mark against them, they’re less likely to report it. When they trust that their employer is pro-safety, they’re more likely to view a near-miss as a learning opportunity and the report as a contribution to an overall understanding of how to improve safety.
How to take action on your findings
1. Using survey data, identify your business or team’s top 3 priorities
Limiting the number of action points to 3 or fewer will help keep your project focused and your findings actionable.
2. Organize an action planning meeting and identify ways to address your top 3 points
Include staff from across the business – it’s important that safety is seen as a whole-company priority, not solely the responsibility of the safety department.
3. Assign roles and ownership of the resulting tasks
As we’ve explored, culture is paramount when it comes to safety and having a sense of ownership over safety planning can dramatically improve employee engagement and adherence to safe behaviors.
4. Measure, compare, improve, measure again
Like any experience management project, your workplace safety analysis should be seen as an ongoing program rather than a one-off deliverable. Collecting data initially will provide a baseline of where you started from. Repeating the survey after you take action will help you seen how far you’ve come, and where to turn next as you improve your company’s safety culture.
Get Started with Your Workplace Safety Program
United States Department of Labor. (n.d). Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Safety and Health Topics. Business Case for Safety and Health. Costs. Retrieved December 3rd, 2019, from https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/products/topics/businesscase/costs.html
March 31, 2020
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