A frontline worker leaves the training room after learning a new way to stay safe on the job.
“Safety first,” they whisper to a nearby colleague, “after everything else.”
Moments like these are the clearest indicators of whether safety habits have made their way into the fabric of a company’s culture. When a sustainable safety culture is in place, there is never any doubt about where risk and incident prevention fall in an organization’s long list of priorities. Safety is a core belief and competency, right alongside earning a profit.
“Creating a world-class safety culture takes a lot of work,” says Tim Page-Bottorff, CSP, CET, a consultant who regularly works with safety training company SafeStart. “This is partly because compliance with a set of rules is a great motivational tool for supervisors, but it doesn’t mean much to frontline workers.”
Instead, he recommends a bottom-up approach in which safety professionals lead by example, humbly acknowledge their imperfections and reach workers by appealing to their shared sense of what is right.
“A safety professional can either be perceived as a friend or a foe,” Page-Bottorff continues. “If you’re a friend, workers will not only wear their safety glasses without being asked, but they’ll also invite you into their conversations.”
Here are five reasons he says your company needs a safety culture that will stand the test of time.
1. Safety Cops Don’t Get Sustainable Results
Safety cops – or professionals who focus exclusively on enforcing the rules and punishing rule-breakers – can have a significant impact on worker behavior, Page-Bottorff says, but old habits die hard. He describes a scenario in which a police officer stops a driver for a traffic violation. The conscientious driver understands they did something wrong and feels guilty.
“After they get a ticket, they’ll fix their behavior for a couple of weeks,” Page-Bottorff says, “but then they’ll go back to ignoring risks.”
To go beyond compliance, he says safety professionals must overcome three challenges: Low employee engagement, a lack of supervisor participation in safety programs and unreasonable productivity goals that lead to shortcuts.
2. Training Only Does So Much
Safety training isn’t just important, it’s often required. But anyone who has ever taught others about safety and health in the workplace knows there are countless obstacles to success. Among them are limited time and funding, topics that meet regulations but not real-world needs, and insufficient facilities. Supervisors can also undermine the results of a session, Page-Bottorff says, when they don’t take the time to show up in the training room.
“If supervisors want to get workers engaged in their safety program, they need to be present,” he adds. “Getting people involved is on an equal playing field with improving safety metrics, product quality and productivity.”
Focusing on employee engagement, rather than checking another event off your list, is one way to ensure that your team’s learning continues after the safety training is over.
3. Progress Happens on a Human Level
Why would frontline workers care about their company’s safety program if they don’t believe its safety leaders are invested in their individual well-being? Page-Bottorff firmly believes that lasting change is the result of human-to-human connections. To be effective, these connections must extend beyond the workday.
“Some companies almost robotically say that they want you to come home at the end of the day in one piece, the same way you came into work,” he says. “What you don’t often hear a leader or safety person say is, ‘Oh, and by the way, we want you to come back to work in one piece, too.’”
That’s why Page-Bottorff advocates for a 24/7 approach to safety and health, one that doesn’t inadvertently encourage workers to turn off a “safety switch” at the end of each shift.
“We as leaders should provide workers with tools to use at home,” he says. “We should invite their families in, because if you’re looking for enforcement, an employee’s child might be the one who reminds the parents to wear gloves or eye protection around the house.”
4. Finger Pointing Isn’t Useful
When Page-Bottorff is helping companies address their safety cultures, he spends a lot of time focused on two words: Judgment and blame. The default behavior of authority figures, he says, is to tell subordinates that their behavior is wrong without taking the time to explore the root of the problem or show empathy. He believes making accusatory statements, rather than sharing constructive tips or personal stories, is one of the biggest mistakes leaders make in modern safety programs.
“Safety professionals have been taught to do a root-cause or fault tree analysis so they can figure out what’s wrong and determine how to make it better in the future,” he says. “But ultimately, those analyses come down to blame, and we forget that we have a responsibility to show we’re as human as the people we’re trying to protect.”
5. Good Habits Perpetuate Good Habits
Supervisors can drive human-level progress, but good habits are most strongly influenced by the feedback and examples workers get from their peers. Once employees are engaged and supported at the peer-to-peer level, Page-Bottorff says, a company’s safety culture is that much closer to what his SafeStart colleague Gary Higbee, EMBA, CSP, calls “utopia.”
“At the peer-to-peer level, workers aren’t just protecting themselves, they’re actively looking out for each other,” Page-Bottorff continues. “When a peer comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, maybe you should do it this way,’ that comes from a different level of respect and you’re much more likely to listen.”
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