Perception Is Reality

October 6, 2003
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Dear Subscriber,

PERCEPTION IS REALITY

When was the last time you asked employees for their views about how supervisors handle safety discipline, or how managers recognize safety accomplishments?

Most subscribers to Industrial Safety & Hygiene News don't put much stock in these kinds of perception surveys. Asked to rank the significance of eight safety and health tools, respondents to ISHN's recent White Paper survey scored perception surveys dead last. Only 13 percent considered them important tools. That's far behind the use of behavior-based safety programs, health promotion, or making a business case for safety and health.

In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we examine the curious neglect of safety perception surveys. "I have no idea why the concept is such a hard sell," says Dan Petersen, one of the country's most-respected safety experts, and an advocate of perception surveys for decades.

Petersen argues that many pros are stuck on ineffective and invalid methods of measuring safety activity, and this actually damages the credibility of safety programs in the eyes of managers, supervisors and employees. OSHA injury rates, the most common measurement, don't tell you what you're doing right or wrong in safety. Inspection audits reflect scoring judgments of safety pros, not the employees who work the system every day, says Petersen.

Measuring perceptions is a much stronger predictor of a company's future safety performance than injury rates or audits, says Petersen. "They are an invaluable diagnostic tool," he says. In fact, Petersen has just developed a new perception survey to assess organizational causes of human error that leads to industrial incidents and catastrophes.

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OH NO, NOT ANOTHER SURVEY

So what's the hang-up with perception surveys? Safety pros cite many problems - they are cumbersome, time-consuming, a hassle to administer. Employees have overdosed on one too many workplace questionnaires. Not much forethought goes into survey questions and design. Reasons for probing perceptions are not clear. And what do you do with the results, anyway?

"Ask what action items were identified from their last perception survey and you'll probably get a blank stare," says veteran safety manager Bob Brown.

"People never do anything with the results," says psychologist Dr. E. Scott Geller. "They're never analyzed. Never used for interventions. I visited a client who had gobs and gobs of paper, reams of paper from a perception survey. He looked at me and said, 'Now what?'"

But you can really boil resistance to perception surveys down to one word: FEAR. Results can be too revealing. The emperor is not wearing his PPE. Managers and supervisors are not walking the safety talk. Rules are not enforced. Hazards are not fixed.

"Many times answers can be very threatening to people who think they are doing a good job," says safety consultant Chip Dawson. "People get defensive."

Or it's the fear that the fix is in. That perception surveys are popularity contests. Employees reward friends and punish enemies. Results are rigged to exact a measure of revenge when labor-management relations are lousy.

"Management can perceive that labor uses these surveys to game the system," says Gary Rosenbloom, a risk manager.

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SHOVE IT

Now can be an especially hard time to sell the idea of a perception survey. What kind of loaded answers will you get from employees with a "take this job and shove it" attitude?

Dan Petersen says he's never seen workers so "pissed off." Walker Information, an Indianapolis research firm, recently interviewed 2,400 employees and found:

  • About two-thirds of U.S. employees said they don't want to or plan to be with their current employer within two years.

  • A slim majority - 54 percent - believed senior leaders to be people of high integrity.

    Polling information technology workers, Towers Perrin researchers found many today are not "emotionally engaged." They find it hard to get juiced about their work or workplaces; they question the quality of the supervision they receive. "Clearly, perceptions of the workplace have deteriorated," states the report.

    Studies conducted by the Gallup Organization, covering 3.16 million employees, put it bluntly: Most workers are not engaged in, or are actively distanced from, their work.

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    DON'T LOOK AWAY

    But a good argument can be made that now is precisely the wrong time to bury the corporate head in the sand. "If employees are afraid, or feel unsafe or unprepared, shouldn't management know that?" asks Gary Rosenbloom. If managers ignore what they don't want to see, they won't know that the glue that holds workplaces together - things like loyalty, teamwork, and communication - might be melting away.

    That lesson comes from the studies of Rensis Likert. Likert pioneered the use perception surveys to establish relationships between employee attitudes, motivation levels, and how a business performs bottom line. His research connected positive feelings about supportive relationships, group decision-making, and quality of supervision to sales growth, high profitability, and high return on investment.

    Gallup's Q12 surveys (a set of 12 questions) also link employee perceptions to business outcomes such as retention, productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction - and safety, according to the organization. Companies such as International Paper and Best Buy have scored high on Q12 questions and experienced lower turnover, higher sales, better productivity and better customer loyalty.

    Gallup's Q12 questions include:

    Do you know what is expected of you at work?

    Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?

    In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?

    Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?

    If you believe Deming was right, that workers are truly your most valuable asset, you want your people answering "yes" to questions like these. Savvy corporations have been using perception surveys outside of safety to learn what they need to do to attract, retain, and engage talented people, according to Towers Perrin. Surveys say: provide challenging work and learning opportunities, reward performance, push decision-making down the line, encourage collaborative teamwork.

    Here's a thought: Conduct a safety perception survey as the first step to reaching broader business goals. Says safety management consultant Brooks Carder: "After three years of work at a large chemical company, the president remarked that the survey-based safety improvement process had created more positive change in the company's culture than a multi-million dollar engagement by a major consulting firm that took place at the same time."

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    DELIVERING THE GOODS

    OK, so how do you realize the promise of perception surveys? So that, in Scott Geller's words, they "go somewhere" and deliver concrete actions and improvements.

    Here are steps you can take:

    Form a perception survey work group consisting of management and employee reps. Be up-front about those fears mentioned earlier, point out the hazards of sticking your head in the sand, and highlight the work of Deming, Likert, and the Gallup Organization. Do a Google search using "safety perception survey" to find case studies.

    Agree on the survey design, content, and delivery method. Keep it simple. You don't need to ask 99 questions. Design your questions to be remediable. Each question should tackle an issue that can be fixed by managers and employees working together. Scott Geller asks questions about levels of trust, communication, and whether employees are working to avoid failure or achieve success - all of which are addressed in subsequent customized training.

    Announce and promote your survey. Sell the troops hard. Reassure them that it's OK to criticize. It's OK to talk about things that haven't been brought up before.

    Tell your folks this is not about slipping into the victim's role and hurling grenades at the board room - no matter what the CEO is getting paid. Forget about the company. Forget about management. Bring the questions down to what affects work (and safety) on a day-to-day level.

    Don't pressure those who don't want to participate.

    Survey a sufficient number of people to ensure statistical validity. Make sure it's a cross section of all levels of your organization. Jim Stewart, a safety management consultant, suggests that for a workplace with 300 people, the survey might include about 70 people (6-12 senior managers, 10 of 20 supervisors, and 50 workers).

    Make sure employee participation is anonymous. Use credible, respected coworkers - your "social influencers" and salespeople - to help market the survey and give it some positive word of mouth.

    When you review results, accept that some suggestions will be off the wall. Keep feedback from veering into petty, impractical areas. And be sure to explain why some suggestions are irrelevant or not feasible.

    Look at bottom line total responses for the questions you've posed. Also, compare answers from managers, supervisors, and workers. Look for obvious gaps in perceptions, disconnects between the shop floor and mahogany row.

    Dan Petersen once analyzed perception survey data from 56 companies employing a total of 1.6 million people. He concluded that a score below 70 percent positive for a category (say the effectiveness of safety training) at the hourly worker level suggests you need to examine activities in that area. A score below 60 percent positive he considers a red flag that something is really in need of repair.

    In Petersen's comprehensive analysis, the most common problems in safety programs turn up in the areas of recognition (56.9 percent positive) and discipline (58.4 percent positive). Companies are relatively good at accident investigation (78 percent), communication (75.7 percent), and motivational programs (73.4 percent).

    Publicize your survey results. Feed results back especially to those employees who took the survey.

    Assemble work groups for problem-solving. These can be focus groups of employees, supers and managers that crunch numbers and interpret scores. Develop an action plan with timelines. Plans must be reviewed by senior managers, and implemented with their clear support. Managers must hold assigned individuals accountable for implementing the plan and meeting deadlines.

    Monitor what happens next. By all means follow up. Chart changes using activity measures (number of training sessions conducted, hazards corrected, etc.) and repeat the perception survey every year or two.

    Most likely, perception survey results will direct your attention to strengths and weaknesses in essential areas of your safety and health program:

    1) Management's demonstrated commitment to safety.

    2) Education and knowledge of workers.

    3) Effectiveness of the supervisory process.

    4) Employee involvement and commitment.

    5) Positive recognition and reinforcement for safety activity.

    Changes to watch for over time are:

    • Increased participation at safety meetings.
    • Employees demonstrating more caring for themselves and others, perhaps through greater use of PPE.
    • Employees being more willing to give and take feedback on safety matters.
    • Increased reporting of observed incidents and hazards.
    • Managers and supervisors visibly demonstrating the importance of safety, and holding subordinates accountable for safety performance.

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    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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    Books from ASSE

    You can order these titles and more from the American Society of Safety Engineers Bookstore on ISHN's Web site.

    Visit - http://www.ishn.com/FILES/HTML/ISHN_ASSE_index/

    Among the books you'll find:

    • "Refresher Guide for the Safety Fundamentals Exam"
    • "The Participation Factor," by Dr. E. Scott Geller
    • "Safety Training That Delivers"
    • "Building a Better Safety and Health Committee"
    • "Safety Management - A Human Approach," and "Techniques of Safety Management - A Systems Approach," both by Dan Petersen.

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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

    We will also consider articles you've already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.

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