Safety isn't a four-letter word... so why don't employees speak up?

February 18, 2005
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Dear Subscriber,

Wouldn’t it be nice to have these means of communicating your safety information:

  • Intranet pages with real-time TRIR/LWIR company-wide displayed on the homepage.
  • An electronic newsletter sent to employees around the world twice a week.
  • An internal, closed-circuit TV system for safety-related graphics, videos, or live broadcasts.
  • A global HelpLine to report suspicions of unethical (or unsafe) behavior, via an 800 number or email.

These are among the tools International Paper uses to foster an open, transparent culture. When you’re trying to get 83,000 employees in 40 countries on the same page, you need your IT department to chip in. And it certainly helps to have deep pockets. IP is the world’s largest paper and forest products company, with annual sales of $25 billion in 2003. It’s also the largest private landowner in the U.S. with 8.3 million acres of forestland.

In this issue of ISHN’s E-Zine, we study the ancient art of safety communications, and the proverbial problem of getting employees to speak their minds.

TECHNOLOGY IS GREAT, BUT…

International Paper isn’t alone of course when it comes to fancy, high-tech safety communications.

Georgia-Pacific, another paper company, uses SafeTV, a slick, customized safety education and training tool for the rank and file. Programs for closed-circuit broadcasting are shot at GP mills and plants, with GP employees sharing stories, mistakes and improvements ranging from eyewash solution mixups, ergo improvements, hands pulled into running nips to behavioral safety improvements and falling truck clamps, explains producer Stasia Kelly. Even safety music videos are part of the mix.

GP’s presentation of SafeTV is "very honest, with no corporate gobbledy-gook," says Kelly.

"Managers are not usually sought for programs. Hourly workers are our heroes and they’re invited to contribute. We never point fingers in blame, though we may detail an accident or problem. We always look for the positive ways that employees have sought to remedy the issue. This helps us recruit people to share their stories, people who genuinely care about helping their colleagues," says Kelly.

Here’s the good news…

You don’t have to be a Fortune 100 behemoth with land holdings four times the size of Yellowstone National Park and 83 facilities enrolled in the Voluntary Protection Program, like International Paper, to effectively talk about safety issues. (But it can help: in 2004 International Paper had a total incidence rate of 1.40 and lost workday incidence rate of 0.24 — compared to national averages of 5.0 and 2.6, respectively, in 2003, the most recent year surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

You can hard-wire your corporation to be an instant-access global village. Impress employees with "Principles of Excellence" and open letters from the chairman. Leadership even can create its own blog, or personal Internet diary, for the world to read and employees to respond to, like General Motors’s "Fast Lane." Still, the most effective form of communicating will be the old-fashioned one-on-one.

"We encourage employees to openly and honestly share" safety stories both good and bad, says Lisa Brooks, manager of safety in IP’s corporate EHS department. But it only works if employees get feedback — proof positive — that the culture truly values safety, she explains.

And how does that happen?

"It can be a simple as a supervisor talking to an employee, one to one," says Brooks. Shift-starting safety toolbox meetings, Q&A bulletin boards, and monthly employee safety meetings are other tried-and-true grassroots sharing-and-caring strategies, she says.

A FEAR FELT 'ROUND THE WORLD

Of course the commitment to communicate openly and honestly must start up on high and "cascade down" as the PR folks like to say.

IP’s Chairman and CEO John Faraci sets the tone and lays down expectations for how he wants his giant company to converse, listen and form relationships among employees.

"If we do the right things for the right reasons, then International Paper will be the best company in world," he writes in one letter to "Dear Fellow Employee." In another letter written last March, Faraci writes, "It’s expected you will ask for help when confronted with a difficult situation or any concern you may have."

But will they? Plenty of evidence says, no, employees will hold back. And it’s a universal reluctance. In a poll of 280 human resources managers in Britain, most were scared to talk about job stress to employees and managers for fear of appearing weak or because they felt uncomfortable discussing something "emotional."

In Norway, 54 percent of 1,294 physicians surveyed found it difficult to criticize colleagues for professionally unacceptable behavior.

And in the good old U.S.A, only about half (51 percent) of 25,000 employees polled in November, 2004, by Towers Perrin characterized their culture as open and honest. Less than half (45 percent) said senior leaders actually talk and listen, creating all-important trust and two-way communication.

"A manager might tell you his door is always open," says one EHS pro. "But often the first question you get is, ‘Did you tell your immediate supervisor about this?’"

Satellite broadcasts and intranet chat rooms can’t manufacture trust. Communication tools and techniques are only as effective as the culture they operate in. "It all critically depends on the culture of the organization," says Dr. John Kello, psychology professor at Davidson College.

If relations between employees and managers are good, "folks can talk more or less comfortably" about sensitive safety issues, he says.

OPEN CULTURES ARE RARE

But even Jim Collins, author of the best-seller Good to Great, admits that great companies with great cultures are a rarity.

"Most businesses, for that matter, are not great," he said in an article in USA Today. Collins should know: he and a team of 20 researchers analyzed 1,435 private companies and found just 11 that had managed the leap from good to great, as defined by sustainable financial performance criteria.

"Culture change is extremely difficult," says Mike Kalbaugh, EHS manager for Avery Dennison’s Retail Information Services. "There is a general concern about questioning decisions from upper management" or reporting near hits, first aid and other incidents.

Many companies claim to want open, free-flowing dialog about every kind of issue — ethics, safety, job stresses, substance abuse, incompetence, under-performance, cutting corners, breaking protocols, mechanical and system failures. Mavericks need protection. Groupthink needs to be avoided.

The goal is "unafraid plain talk," according to Kello. Or what Collins calls a "climate of truth-telling" where meetings are unscripted and facts are faced, no matter how brutal.

But back in the real world safety and health pros inhabit daily, employees constantly make their own risk assessments, weighing the costs and benefits of speaking out. And many times they just don’t see the signs of support encouraging them to open up.

TAKE THESE TESTS

For example: here are observable actions (which speak louder than codes of conduct) telling employees it’s probably best to mind their own business:

1 - Employees don’t have authority to shut down unsafe operations.

2 - Employees are not asked for input into final job design or how to make a task simpler.

3 - Employees have no input when certain coworkers "sluff off" and others must take up the slack.

4 - People are slid into management slots with no credibility to do or understand the jobs and people they supervise.

5 - High bonuses and salaries go to employees who don’t have a clue, but play the game well.

6 - Management operates with high administrative costs yet refuses to reward or recognize safety achievements because costs must be brought down wherever possible.

7 - Loyalty, not integrity, is rewarded.

8 – Employees tell each other, "Management usually always does win."

These eight symptoms of a stifling culture all come from EHS pros we surveyed, by the way.

Audit your own workplace. How many of these signals are sent to employees?

Find too many "cultural signposts" like these and your employees are more apt to opt for the "steady benefits of conformity," says an EHS consultant. Better to blend in than "tattle" or expose a screw up and risk retaliation or the reputation as a troublemaker.

Now here’s another audit to conduct. If you assess your culture and find evidence of these "truth-telling" qualities enumerated by Collins and EHS pros we polled, your employees might be more secure about stepping up and taking a swing at candidness:

1 - Leadership is always asking questions — especially the "Why?" question.

2 - It’s evident through the probing and prodding that leaders want to understand what’s going on, not find scapegoats and personal escape routes.

3 – The boss leaves his or her office behind and wanders in on a safety tailgate meeting. The boss can put a name with a face, and knows most employees by name.

4 - Informal meetings are valued, and might begin with a leader saying, "Today we have no script, no agenda. So what’s on your mind?"

5 - No penalties are assessed for raising red flags, or even what risk communicator Peter Sandman calls yellow flags — close calls, near hits, preliminary findings that could indicate trouble.

6 – Feedback mechanisms are in place, and used.

"Employees must know that their suggestions, concerns, whatever information they are bringing forward, is being acted upon," says International Paper’s Lisa Brooks. "If they don’t get this feedback from supervisors in personal conversations, or through follow-ups posted on bulletin boards or announced at meetings, "they won’t continue to provide you with information."

Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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WE NEED YOU!

Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?

Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.

Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.

If any of these topics interest you — or if you have other ideas — e-mail editor Dave Johnson at djsafe@bellatlantic.net

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