Employee engagement is a popular buzzword that offers a panacea for sputtering wellness programs, low retention, stagnant productivity, poor sales, and stale safety initiatives. In theory, it makes perfect sense. Engaged employees are more committed, work harder, have fewer absences and accidents, innovate, and are more likely to stay with an organization. Yet, what is engagement, how is it accomplished, and more importantly, how is it sustained?
The definition of engagement is subjective and varies among employees. But at the heart of engagement is a shared set of values, common goals, mutual trust, openness, and encouragement of involvement and innovative thought. While words, posters, motivational speeches, and events or carrot and stick incentives may provide a boost in engagement, it’s short lived. To be long lasting, engagement requires an on-going two way process, where companies work to eliminate hazards and engage the employees who, in turn, are motivated to “embrace and own” the common goals.
Although engagement is often discussed at the organizational level, it’s the workers’ attitude that determines the company’s safety record. Employees will resist change unless it is framed with a positive outcome for them as individuals.
Some of the most common complaints about Environmental, Health and Safety programs paint a clear picture of why engagement fails in many safety programs. EHS Today has been conducting the National Safety Survey for 15 years. In 2014, it found that the top ten complaints from workers about safety programs are:
- It takes too much time.
- More rules from the government.
- Safety makes it difficult to do my job.
- The rules are stupid.
- Why do we have to do this training every year?
- Supervisors aren’t following the rules, why should we?
- EHS compliance makes everything more difficult and time consuming.
- The safety guys are …holes and bullies.
- I’ve been doing this work for many years and never had an accident. Why change the way I do it now?
- Too many rules and too much training.
These complaints tell a story. There is disdain about the value of the safety program, indicating employees had little or no role in its development. The company talks the talk, but does not walk the talk. Complacency has set in. And productivity trumps safety.
Here are seven tips to ensure engagement in safety processes:
- Must be buy-in at every level of the corporate structure, from senior levels to line workers. Management must commit to safety as a core value and involve all employees in the development of the safety program. While many companies have a sincere belief in a safe workplace, they fall short on a daily basis when faced with production and delivery deadlines. Line workers are the safety experts. They know where the hazards are and who takes risks. An unwavering focus on maintaining a workplace so that everyone goes home safe at the end of the day is needed. Engagement is built upon a foundation of healthy, caring, respectful and trust relationships among all employees.
- Avoid programs, focus on the process. There are a plethora of safety initiatives, many of which have value and should be incorporated into the process. But when presented as standalone solutions, employees tire of the programs, knowing they soon will be replaced by the next latest and greatest idea. Overtime, they become a joke – the flavor of the month syndrome.
- Give employees a voice. Provide a forum to continually listen to their experiences, concerns, and suggestions. Work to clarify policies and procedures that are identified as priorities and be sure they understand why. Encourage the reporting not only of near misses, but also potentially unsafe conditions. Train workers how to give and receive positive and constructive feedback, so that peer-to-peer behavior pointers and intervention become routine.
- Get managers on board. Credibility and trust are destroyed when workers experience lip service to safety, a climate of fear, a “blame” approach, and resistance to change. Managers who are constantly pressured about productivity can become the major obstacles in the process, without realizing it. Research has shown that managers and supervisors consistently score safety climates higher than workers do. Train managers how safety and productivity can co-exist and how to communicate with workers. Workers see through companies that profess to be committed to safety, but do not devote adequate resources and time to it.
- Give the process an identity. The identity should not be the starting point, but should evolve. Once a process is established, it helps to have an identity to remind workers of it. The identity should provide a constant reminder of the behavioral factors that are most likely to lead to accidents, such as rushing, distraction, frustration, tiredness and complacency. EnPro Industries, which has twice been named one of America’s Safest Companies, has a SafetyFirst program that identifies five general behavior characteristics called CARES:
Control emotions – Recognize how your mental state affects judgment and safety
Anticipate – think ahead, if it is not planned it can create unsafe conditions and behavior
Responsible – Look out for yourself and others
Engage – remain focused: Be present and fully aware of states such as tired, complacent, and fatigue
Safe pace – Work at appropriate speed: avoid stress and strain to prevent injuries and unsafe conditions
They also have industry and site specific triggers to help hone in on specific injuries. Some examples are:
- Don’t Feel the Steel
- If You Don’t Grip You Could Slip
- If You Do Something New, Make Sure to Review
- Take a Stand, Ask for a Hand
- Tackle complacency. Even with a strong safety process, complacency is always lurking. When employees work around a hazard every day, it’s easy to lose sight of the potential danger. Just because workers are compliant and wear their protective gear does not mean they are working safe.
- Make recognition personal. While celebratory events and awareness activities are worthwhile, the most effective method will be personal recognition. A congratulatory word from a supervisor or a hand written note from the president acknowledging a good idea or success go a long way in making an employee feel valued and committed to the process. Employees of all levels in the organization should be included.
A lasting and effective safety management process must be tailored to your business. Once well-designed processes become an integral part of day-to-day activities, they support a culture of responsibility, accountability, commitment and engagement.
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