When injury rates are low, senior managers and, by extension, many organizations feel they have been successful in developing a strong safety culture. Yet, employees may have a different perception, as indicated by a recent survey, Health and Safety Industry Survey 2014. Conducted by MySafetySign, the online survey included 532 health and safety professionals from a cross section of businesses, across 17 industries in the United States.
According to the survey, top management is more serious about health and safety than regular employees. 63 percent of respondents say their senior management view health and safety as very important, whereas only 43 percent of staff do. More disturbing, only 21 percent said that their organization had health and safety embedded into the staff’s personal responsibilities and objectives, which is the heart of a strong safety culture.
This chasm in the perception of safety between staff and upper management is not unusual. Here are five reasons it occurs:
- Safety is driven by systems, not culture Safety systems are focused on rules and compliance and monitored by incident rates and inspections. While safety systems are critical to a safe workplace, front-line workers and supervisors tend to view them as tasks, something that is mandated by management to be performed during the course of work. There is little connection to the big picture of how safe the workplace really is and how a collaborative process can improve it.
The results of the MySafetySign survey support this view. Health and safety professionals were asked what tools and techniques their organizations used to demonstrate the importance of safe working practices. Training was the leading method, cited by 75 percent of the respondents. Although training is a critical and effective way to build knowledge and skills in a safety context, when viewed as a be-all and end-all, it can lead to the false belief that the safety culture is strong.
If an incident occurs, the onus is on the workforce – management has done its job (training) and an employee has failed to perform the job properly. Other workers distance themselves from the problem; there is little understanding of the reasons for the unsafe behavior. And often the solution is to throw more training at the problem.
One of the lesser-used tools in the survey was “setting safety-related corporate and strategic objectives,” at 34 percent. Yet, the message that safety is all about caring for each other and holding each other accountable for a safe working environment, is the basis for a strong safety culture. It is the culture, not safety policies, that drives employee attitudes.
Giving employees a voice and empowering them to take responsibility for safety within their roles leads to collaboration and improved ways of doing the job safely. When companies articulate a clear vision and “walk the talk” in ways that workers can grasp and implement, workers understand their role in safety and why it matters. Safety becomes a daily priority and it is a natural job responsibility to stop and report any unsafe behavior or condition that puts the workforce at risk.
- Defining the role of the supervisor Employers make three common mistakes related to safety when they define the role of the supervisor. The first is communicating that the overriding goal is production. “Try to do the job safely, but get it done quickly.” Even if it means occasional risks have to be taken, the supervisor’s eye is now on profitability, rather than the safety of the workers.
The second is not involving the supervisor in decisions about safety, but dictating safety systems. Giving supervisors the leeway to choose how to accomplish safety objectives and regulatory requirements will often lead to more effective solutions because the supervisor knows the work best and takes ownership of the decisions.
Lastly, in the typical injury management process, supervisor involvement ends after the due diligence of reporting and investigating the accident and resumes when the injured employee returns to work. They become focused on getting the work done, while the injured worker deals with the unfamiliar web of HR, the insurance company and the medical provider. Assuming there is a supportive culture and good working relationship, the lack of involvement by the supervisor can be misconstrued and adversely affect the recovery of the injured worker. Return to work is not solely determined by medical conditions but is a composite outcome of health, social, work and personal conditions in which the supervisor should play a role.
- Failure to integrate risk management, wellness and health When health benefits, wellness programs, disability benefits, absenteeism and Workers’ Compensation are not integrated, employees are sent inconsistent messages about their health. It should not be up to employees to make the connections between poor health and occupational injuries or the prevalence of chronic health conditions and high medical and pharmacy costs and lost work time.
While looking at the exposures on the job is vital to workplace safety, it is not enough. Good employee health is necessary for a holistic approach to safety. Yet safety and health often operate as distinct silos, safety under the umbrella of operations and health management under human relations. This can result in contradictory messages, even though they have a common goal – the worker’s health and productivity.
It will take more than improved communication to accomplish the goal; it requires a commitment to a shared vision. Management needs to create the vision and reinforce it until it is accepted and sustained. The common goal only becomes attainable when collaboration is fostered and biases and mistrust dispelled.
- Psychosocial concerns are overlooked Employers serious about safety take the time to identify physical risks and provide the resources to create a safe working environment. Yet, as pointed out in the survey, psychosocial concerns are often overlooked. “Stress” topped the list of the health and safety concerns that are not given enough consideration in the workplace. This was followed by “overworked.”
There are two primary sources of stress in the workplace, relationships at work and the organizational culture. Time pressures, unrealistic deadlines, excessive overtime, unclear or conflicting roles, job insecurity, organizational changes, personality conflicts, and bullying are some of the common types of workplace stress. Understanding the source of stress can help pinpoint problem areas that lead to unsafe work practices.
- Complacency When injury rates are low, it’s easy to become complacent and rest on the accomplishments. Business is changing rapidly and safety must keep pace. Businesses need to engage their workers, evaluate core safety processes and continually improve. The philosophy of continuous improvement tells us there is no such thing as perfection; there is always room to improve and grow.
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