Break out of the box

May 1, 2005
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Are your safety rules and policies mostly all aimed at the five percent of your workers who are “allergic” to safety?

Are you limiting the scope and potential of your safety program? Boxed in by too much time spent dealing with accident repeaters, safety resisters and putting out fires?

Critics charge OSHA with doing just that. Too much time and too many tax dollars wasted investigating and negotiating with the very small minority of six million U.S. workplaces that don’t care about safety.

Let’s take research from a new book, “The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit By Giving Workers What They Want,” (Wharton School Publishing, 2005) to examine how safety and health can broadly improve attitudes, performance and profits in today’s workplace.

The dulling effect

But first, who says only five percent of the workforce is seriously safety-impaired?

Well, only five percent of the work population shows up for a new job “allergic to work” in general, says David Sirota, one of “The Enthusiastic Employee” authors, along with Louis Mischkind and Michael Irwin Meltzer.

The five percenters don’t get what work (or by extension, safety) is about and don’t want to learn. They resist. They show up late, leave early, and wander around wasting lots of time. They don’t pay attention, they get hurt, others get hurt, and equipment and property is damaged. They never should have been hired in the first place, Sirota says.

Instead, they’re managed like a problem child, watched like a hawk and hit with rules and threats of dismissal.

But here’s what often happens, according to Sirota: In many organizations the behavior of this small group (maybe one in twenty workers) is generalized to just about every worker. So rule books become tomes, warnings are posted, training classes treat employees like children, meetings go on and on about issues irrelevant to most workers, and supervisors always look over shoulders. Trust levels run low.

And in the eyes of many employees, safety programs come off as oppressive and wasteful.

That’s because about 95 percent of employees begin a new job excited about their work and their organization (and safety, too, by extension), according to Sirota. They’re eager to be part of a productive team of co-workers.

But after the honeymoon ends — usually about six months into the job — morale (and safety interest, too, by extension) begins to sag in about nine out of ten companies, according to Sirota’s research.

Sirota bases his percentages and claims on three decades of studying the attitudes of people at work — about 2.5 million have been surveyed by his consulting company since 1994 alone.

Have you seen safety attitudes follow a similar arc in your workplace: high initial interest followed by a flickering fade out?

Is it because traditional safety management practices focus too much on finding and fixing problems — and not enough on bringing the best out of employees, and companies?

Safety’s long reach

Here’s what we mean: Research from “The Enthusiastic Employee” shows that safety programs influence many organizational issues that motivate employees. Eighty-five to 90 percent of workers are turned on by just three basic needs, is the premise of “The Enthusiastic Employee.” Based on those millions of surveys, what workers want — and what makes them productive — is universal and timeless, according to the authors:

1) Equity — Workers feel entitled to a safe work environment, reasonable pay and job security, and to be treated with respect.

Safety and health play a large role in delivering the kind of fair and just treatment employees seek from work. As the authors write, where loss of limb or life is at stake, the ultimate respect is expected — the goal can be nothing other than zero injuries.

Neglecting the physical work environment is a sure sign of disrespect, according to the authors. Employees want conditions fit for a human. Not dirty, congested, poorly lit and poorly ventilated places to work.

2) Achievement — Workers want to be recognized for their performance. They want feedback on how they’re doing. Plenty of opportunities here for safety pros and safety initiatives to contribute positively.

3) Camaraderie — Let’s not forget we’re social animals, the authors remind us. We feel a need to belong and identify — and not just with our families, communities, schools and sports teams. Workers want to have warm, interesting and cooperative relations with others in the workplace, according to the book.

Safety, of course, through observation and feedback loops, and team-based planning, goal-setting, auditing, problem-solving and training offers many opportunities to develop close-knit, caring relations.

The safety connection

Let’s look at 25 ways your safety activities can help meet those three fundamental worker needs. It’s safety’s contribution to keeping employee morale high and the bottom line healthy.

With equity, or how the workforce is treated, here are specific issues employees say are important (with possible safety and health connections noted):

1 — Protecting employees’ safety and health is a significant value with high expectations. Is your ultimate goal zero injuries — the only goal worth discussing?

2 — Being treated with respect and dignity. What’s the tone of your day-to-day safety conversations?

3 — Supervisors possess competent human relations skills. What’s the tone of your super’s safety conversations — or are they mostly confrontations?

4 — Physical working conditions are fit for humans. Are employees satisfied with housekeeping, noise levels, lighting levels, temperature controls, machine guards, exposure controls, etc.?

5 — Company interest in employee well-being is authentic. Do employees read corporate annual reports as “spin” or do they see investments in wellness and off-the-job safety activities?

6 — Senior management’s actions are consistent with words. Do workers hear lip service regarding safety or see authentic management participation in safety audits, etc.?

7 — Favoritism is frowned upon. How are safety assignments made? Who gets recognized for accomplishments?

Employees want to take pride in personal and company achievements. This is their second basic need. Here are related issues singled out by workers — issues that can be influenced positively or negatively by how you execute safety and health work (note examples):

8 — Employees have a clear idea of results expected. How do you communicate safety goals and safety performance expectations?

9 — Supervisors possess technical competence. What is the super’s level of safety and health knowledge?

10 — Corporate citizenship is the real deal. Do employees see public relations fluff or relevant community outreach with measurable outcomes?

11 — Tools and equipment to do the job are adequate and available. Is sufficient quality PPE stocked and ready to go in sizes to fit all employees?

12 — Information to do the job is accessible. Do you have an organized MSDS database? Up-to-date job safety analyses?

13 — Training is taken seriously. Is your safety training canned or customized? Does it go beyond OSHA compliance to cover company-specific hazards?

14 — Employees are treated as important contributors, worthy of protection. Do employees see sufficient resources (staff and budget) devoted to safety and health?

15 — Feedback is presented on performance. Are safe and at-risk behaviors discussed regularly — on the spot, as soon as they occur?

16 — Recognition is given for a good job. Are individual and group safety accomplishments recognized and celebrated?

17 — Decisions are made without undue delay. Are identified hazards either abated or alternative actions explained?

18 — Employee participation in decisions is encouraged. Do your employees take active roles in safety training, audits, planning, goal-setting?

19 — Not a lot of time and effort is wasted on anything. Do your safety meetings steer clear of gripe sessions and mean more to employees than doughnut breaks?

20 — Problems are solved rather than finding someone to blame. What’s the tone and focus of your incident investigations?

21 — Management does not give conflicting instructions. Do managers claim safety is job one, but dismiss safety concerns when deadlines must be met?

Finally, in terms of camaraderie on the job, the third need, safety can add to or detract from these issues raised by employees in surveys:

22 — Relationships with co-workers are nurtured and encouraged. Do you encourage safety mentoring, coaching, or buddy systems?

23 — Teamwork within a work unit is encouraged. Do employees have input into work unit safety goals and activities?

24 — Teamwork across departments is encouraged. Do incentive contests pit one department against another?

25 — Teamwork across the company as a whole is emphasized. Are safety accomplishments recognized as fulfilling one of the purposes of the organization?

Where are you at?

Check your answers to these questions. If your response generally is — “No, safety doesn’t play a role here; we don’t do this here” — your efforts probably fit consultant Dan Petersen’s description of a typical safety program: just keep doing what you have been doing. And safety probably sits isolated inside its own silo in your organization — called on to put out fires, but not fire up employees.

But if you see yourself and your programs active in many of these organizational areas, you’ve gone far beyond firefighting and tending to those “five percenters.” You’re making safety a key contributor to morale and business performance.

Note of caution

Be careful in executing your safety activities. Some traditional safety staples turn up on “The Enthusiastic Employee” authors’ list of things that really don’t motivate employees — and can be downright discouraging if handled poorly or over-emphasized. These include:

  • picnics, banquets and barbecues;
  • suggestion programs;
  • company newsletters;
  • pep rallies.

As the authors write, it is not that employees don’t care about these “frills,” but they matter far less in satisfying their three main needs than the issues listed above.

SIDEBAR: What do you believe?

Management practices, safety or otherwise, are based on beliefs about the workforce. Take this short quiz to test your organization’s beliefs about today’s workers. Do most of your managers and supervisors agree or disagree:

  • Workers are basically lazy and must be continually watched.
  • Workers are not capable of making decisions for the good of the company.
  • Workers are selfish by and large and have little or no interest in the company’s goals.
  • Workers do not want to take on responsibility.
  • Workers need care and protection like children.
  • Workers need to be told what to do on the job, when to do it, and how to do it.
  • When you get down to it, workers are interchangeable, replaceable assets.

In far too many organizations these beliefs from the Industrial Revolution still hold sway, according to Dennis Bakke, author of another book worth slipping into your boss’s briefcase, “Joy at Work,” (PVG, 2005).

So we have oppressive and de-motivating work cultures — and safety programs.

In modern work, the full talents of employees are rarely used and often go unnoticed, writes Bakke, who knows something about engaging a workforce. He was CEO of AES, an energy giant with 40,000 employees and $8.6 billion in revenue.

People are boxed in by job descriptions and blanketed by layers of commands and controls. Companies don’t know what to do with “the whole person,” says Bakke.

Neither do safety and health programs, in some cases.

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