Creating a Stronger Safety Culture

Creating a Stronger Safety Culture:  How to Communicate with Workers More Effectively
Creating a Stronger Safety Culture: How to Communicate with Workers More Effectively

Introduction

When a panel of safety professionals at a 2008 conference was asked to define the “culture of safety”, one panelist offered this:

“A culture of safety is an atmosphere of mutual trust in which all employees can talk freely about safety problems and how to solve them, without fear, blame or punishment. Employees are encouraged to work toward change and to take action when it is needed. Management must accept responsibility and show commitment for the safety of all employees.”

This definition draws attention to the real key to a successful safety culture: communication between workers and management. Moreover, it breaks down the requirements for a culture of safety into three neat categories, one per sentence: management must make a commitment to safety, share ideas on safe work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE), and establish a mechanism for feedback that helps all employees to create a safe work environment.

Making a Commitment to Safety

The first step from the last sentence is clear: to open a dialogue with workers, management must make a credible commitment to safety. Safety should clearly be thought of as a priority— but not just to reduce business risk and monetary loss. Instead, safety should be established as a value, like fairness or honesty, something more permanent and important than “checking a box”. Safety is not an extra step, but automatically an inherent part of every job.

Workers will only buy into a new safety plan if they see management putting its money where its mouth is and pledging real resources to assess hazards and provide education in order to eliminate the potential for injury. Once management has established itself as a trustworthy participant in the conversation on safety, real communication can begin.

Speak Up On Safety

Let’s move on to another sentence from our opening quote: “Employees can talk freely about safety problems and how to solve them, without fear, blame or punishment.”

No one can understand a work process or its hazards as well as the workers themselves. And yet when it comes time to design or upgrade a safety program, employees are often left out of the loop. Avoid this mistake by inviting workers to share their safety concerns and suggestions. This type of input may be difficult to obtain; workers may be reluctant to “rock the boat,” fearful that complaints may lead to retribution from coworkers or supervisors.

To counter this, set up a system that makes frank discussion of safety concerns a positive and secure experience. Hold one-on-one safety conversations, talking to a wide variety of workers—sometimes one employee can provide a wealth of information that others may feel the need to withhold. When a worker’s suggestion leads to a safety improvement, recognize his or her contribution and reward it with praise or prizes.

Seeking input from employees in this manner will not only lead to fewer hazards in the workplace, but will also help to improve your overall culture of safety by making employees more involved in the safety process. Employees are much more likely to comply with policies that they helped to create.

Feedback: Positive & Constructive

Worker-to-management communication is not enough to establish a culture of safety; management must also be able to give clear, effective feedback to employees. As our safety professional put it, “Employees are encouraged to work toward change and to take action when it is needed.”

Note the phrasing: employees are “encouraged to work towards change,” not “punished for non-compliance.” Too often, the word “feedback” is associated with reprimand, not praise. This perception renders feedback less effective—employees expecting negative comments will actively avoid feedback, and be less receptive to suggestions for improvement. Thus, feedback delivery, from the first meeting on, must be made a positive experience. Start with praise and acknowledge contributions; employees who feel appreciated, competent, and important will be more open to working towards change. During your discussion, move first from the past to the present, highlighting progress made and challenges faced, and then from present to future, showing how building on past accomplishments can lead to further improvements.

Conclusion

During the 2008 safety panel that provided our first characterization of the culture of safety, another safety professional offered a different definition, a bit more blunt but just as accurate:

“Having people work safely when nobody is looking.”

This is the real goal of any culture of safety. With a commitment to safety from management, input from workers to supervisors, and feedback from supervisors to workers, it can become a reality. Communication with employees about safety will be free and clear, and a culture of safety will be ready to take root.

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