It’s 2015 and this is not your father’s or mother’s workplace. The New York Times August 16th report on Amazon’s organizational culture, one of achievement or abuse, opinions vary greatly, is an eye-opener — apparently to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, as well, who said that’s not the Amazon culture he knows. But it’s not the whole picture. Amazon might be an outlier due to the ultra-competitive environment in which it operates. Then again, others argue not. “Amazon is not some dystopian outlier. It’s the new normal. It’s just a little more frank about its goals and intentions,” writes Matt Yglesis at Vox.

Consider these headlines: “Amazon and the Realities of the ‘New Economy’;” “Amazon’s 24/7 Hell is the Future of Work;” “Wearables at Work: the new frontier of employee surveillance;” “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave;” “Minimum Wage Debate Pits Employers vs. Employees;” “A Digital Big Brother is Coming;” “Like Amazon, More Firms use Data on Workers to Drive Productivity;” “Only 33% of Employees are Engaged at Work.”

How do you integrate workplace safety and health excellence, and the modern work safety culture of trust, teamwork, credibility, fairness and caring, into the modern workaday world? That’s the question we posed to an array of occupational safety and health experts. How are safety and health practices best aligned with the New Normal – competitiveness on steroids?

Attributes of today’s workplace

Let’s first look at a dozen attributes of the modern workplace: 1) Run lean and mean and fast; 2) Use temps and independent contractors extensively; 3) Keeps wages low; 4) Keep headcount low; 5) Monitor employee behaviors and performance management in granular, real-time metrics; 6) Surveillance technologies threaten privacy; 7) Boundaries between work and non-work hours are increasingly blurred; 8) Global competition and mature markets often mean “be number one or else;” 9) The loyalty ethic and employer-employee compact have eroded for decades; 10) Job turnover, job churn, is accelerated; 11) Trust and engagement are decreasing; and 12) Stay connected 24/7.

Gallup polling captures in statistics the New Economy. About one in five Americans is either underemployed (14.7%) or unemployed (6.4%). About one-third (35%) are worried about money. Telecommuting at least several days each month has increased from 9% of employees in 1995 to 37% in 2015. Roughly one-third of employees are actively committed to doing a good job; 50% merely put in their time; and the remaining 20% act out their discontent in counterproductive ways.

A 2014 survey by the Conference Board found similar discontent. The majority of Americans — 52.3% — are unhappy at work. Every year since 1987, the Board has run a job satisfaction survey. Nearly three decades ago, 61.1% of workers said they liked their jobs. The survey asked workers how they feel about various parts of their experience, including job security, wages, promotion policy, vacation policy, sick leave, health plan and retirement plan. On all of these measures, workers were happier in 1987 than they are now.

Paying the price

The consequences of the New Economy, which challenge businesses and safety and health departments alike, include:

  • Millenials are encouraged to seek a new job every 4-5 years or appear lazy and stagnant
  • High healthcare costs
  • Mental health problems, job stress increases, work-life imbalances, declining morale
  • Presenteeism (being on the job but preoccupied or ill and not as productive)
  • Fatigue (due to long hours, stress, or holding down two jobs)
  • Distracted driving (that need to stay connected)
  • Uncertain workforce sustainability (burn out and job-hopping)
  • Insecurities due to temp or “non-traditional” job status
  • Confusion about who is responsible for ensuring safety training and safe behaviors and attitudes of temps and contractors

Here are what safety and health experts say about meeting the challenges of modern work:

Treat people well and safety and profits increase

“Maybe it took a huge company like Amazon to bring the subject of culture to the fore, but organizations’ negative and sometimes abusive treatment of employees has been going on in the Western world since the Industrial Revolution,” says Dr. Judy Erickson, president of Erickson Associates.

Erickson conducted a three-year nationwide study in the 1990s to determine the effect of corporate culture on safety performance. The factor statistically most predictive of the level of safety performance is the way in which employees are treated, according to Erickson. “Basically, if people are treated well, safety performance, productivity, and profit increase while occupational stress, absenteeism, and turn-over decrease,” she explains.

“You just have to draw the boundary and not cross it.” 

“Where do you draw the line between work and personal life?  When I was pushing myself in my consulting practice, I did my best to limit myself to a normal work day, meaning working at home from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm,” says Jim Leemann, president of The Leemann Group LLC.  “You just have to draw the boundary and not cross it. For example, turn off your cell phone say after 6:00 pm. Don’t look at emails on a tablet while watching TV. Read a book at night. Spend time with your children or grandchildren, if they are around. Play with your dog.

“The psychology of social media has become a pathology. Remaining connected is like a crack cocaine habit. The only way to break the habit is stop turning to your cell phone every waking moment of the day.”

Professionals must be at the top of their game

“Capitalism can work with ensuring worker health and safety,” says Henry Lick, CIH, former director of industrial hygiene for Ford Motor Company. “To achieve success there must be a clear vision that workers are a part of the team and that they have valuable insight into quality and productivity and they know the hazards of their jobs.”

Health, safety, and environment work today requires a broader skill set that takes advantage of all of the technological and communication tools available, Lick says. “Success also depends on diagnosing situational personality, leadership and culture. Capitalism and a workplace that values health and safety is possible, but it requires work. It also requires professionals that are at the top of their game and who are constantly refreshing their skills.”

Safety has found a way to co-exist with capitalism

“In many cases we safety and health pros are the moral compass in our companies as it relates to safety and maybe even to human rights. We have so much work to do out there with so little time,” says James Thornton, CIH, director of EH&S at Huntington Ingalls Industries. “Larger companies tend to be very mindful of cultural
   stuff and safety because of their branding image.

“On the other side, smaller companies (where most employees work in the U.S.) are trying to slug it out every day; their very culture is survival. Do they want to knowingly hurt anyone? Of course not. Their risk tolerance is just so much higher.

“Capitalism may have found a way to co-exist with safety, but much more likely, safety has found a way to co-exist with capitalism.”

Transformation leadership engages the entire person

“Transformational leadership (TFL) is the answer,” says Dr. Rick Fulwiler, CIH, president of Technology Leadership Associates. “The focus of TFL is engaging the entire person in whatever the task at hand is.  An engaged person will deliver above average results where as an unengaged person will deliver average or below average results.

“The key to achieving functional excellence is engagement and TFL is the key to engagement and you won’t get engagement without mutual self-interest (MSI) and you won’t get MSI without TFL – kind of a circular model. (Peter) Drucker was one of the early management gurus who recognized better results will come from treating the worker as though he/she had a brain and a heart. So many senior leaders, even knowing that, seem to forget about it and focus on transactional outputs i.e. top line sales, bottom line profit. And many health and safety pros focus only on OSHA compliance.”

Put employees in charge of integration

“One way to integrate safety cultures is to put the employees, not management, in charge of the integration,” says Vince Marchesani, a member of the EHS Professionals internet discussion group. “No one wants to fail, and that includes your employees. Initially they may be unsure that you truly want them to be in charge of the integration, but once they see you are serious they will commit themselves to the effort. Identify a group of about seven. Allow them to select their leader, provide a small budget and you, management, act as a resource and a sounding board for the employees.

“Of course you will need to set up milestone meetings where progress, or lack of it, will be presented by the employees. You need to select employees who demonstrate commitment to safety. It will work.”

The “all in” approach to culture change takes time

“Integrating safety into the broader corporate culture needs to be a full team effort, top to bottom,” says James Miners, a member of the EHS Professionals internet discussion group. “Everyone is part of the culture - everyone contributes to it and everyone is affected by it. The ‘all in’ approach takes time. It requires cross-functional, multi-level teams working towards common health and safety goals. Joint health and safety committees can work like this, and should. Hazard and risk assessments can work like this. Accident investigations can work like this.”

A safety team must know the parameters of the culture

“Safety comes in tandem with organizational culture,” says Cory Worden, manager, system safety, occupational health and safety, Memorial Hermann Health System. “Hazards must be identified, assessed and controlled. Engagement and communication of expectations also applies to job task analyses, job safety analyses, regulatory compliance, Hierarchy of Controls implementation, leading indicator developments and much more. The team, knowing the parameters of the culture it operates in, can, as a team, determine the most effective processes to render safe the work being done, oversee it and continually improve it.”

Employees must trust reporting processes

“We need open and honest information from our workforce to uncover the hazards and risk that exist so we can proactively mitigate those things that result in injuries,” says Dr. Timothy Ludwig, a psychology professor at Appalachian State University and a safety consultant. “The best-in-practice companies have close-call reporting and behavioral safety programs where workers freely report on their own and their peers’ behavior.  These companies are able to act on this information to trend, analyze, and proactively address otherwise hidden hazards and risks and reduce injury and suffering.” 

The fast pace of business requires a taste for chaos

Says Dr. Peter Sandman, world renown risk communication consultant, “There’s a lot of literature linking innovation, especially business innovation, with risk-tolerance and risk-taking. Innovation requires a willingness to try something different even though it might blow up in your face. Insofar as a safety focus is antithetical to high risk-tolerance – risk of failure, not just risk of injury – the safety mindset may be incompatible with the innovation mindset. 

“The fast pace of change in business today arguably requires a taste for chaos and an ability to cope well with high uncertainty. What is called ‘innovation’ may actually be just coping with an ever-faster pace of change: anticipating the changes on the horizon and adapting promptly to the changes that are already occurring. This sort of flexible adaptability is genuinely antithetical to orderly, rule-governed, stable behavioral protocols. Safety has traditionally been prone to orderly, rule-governed, stable behavioral protocols. For the sorts of organizational cultures that succeed in today’s environment, we may need to create a more flexible, adaptable, innovative, chaos-tolerating approach to safety.   

“With the advent of ‘big data,’ business today is ever-more analytic. I don’t know whether it’s true that safety people tend to be intuitive/empathic – but if that’s the case, then safety people may be increasingly out of step. And safety may need to evolve in a more analytic direction. That needn’t mean caring less about others, of course – just using a different skill set to understand why others are the way they are.”

Take a look at VPP companies

“In the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) we look for workplaces with exemplary safety and health programs, where there is management leadership and employee involvement,” says Jorge Delucca, an OSHA acting Voluntary Protection Program coordinator. “Where employees feel proud of getting the job done but at the same time are empowered to stop production if they detect a safety hazard, without fear of retaliation from management.

“Recently at a VPP audit, the plant manager explained his philosophy: Production, Safety and Quality go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Without production employees lose their livelihood; without quality the company loses its customers; without safety, the company loses valuable employees and production cannot get done.”

There’s no need for berating and belittling

“Organizations can build and maintain a culture of high performance without leading and managing in a punitive, abusive way,” says Dr. John Kello, a psychology professor at Davidson College and an organizational management and safety consultant.  “Best in show organizations can establish and enforce high expectations of results and accountability without berating and belittling employees who may make a mistake, or do less than an A+ job all the time.

“My advice to organizations that want to be the best: hire well (look for personal attributes of success as well as the work history as told by the resume), set clear expectations, ensure that leaders and managers give feedback fairly and professionally, and treat associates with trust and respect. No leader-meltdowns, no screaming and cursing; any ‘leaders’ who treat their associates that way should be ‘fixed’ or quickly entered into the ‘salary discontinuation program.’

“Those of us who have enough ability and grit, who love what we do, love the opportunity to make a positive difference, and are treated with respect by the folks we work for, are mostly OK with being held to high standards (and holding ourselves and our direct reports to high standards). We are mostly not OK with being treated disrespectfully, much less abusively.”

“We only need another Triangle Shirt Waist fire…”

“There are many subtle differences in what millennials want from their work life, but I don’t see substantial generational differences in the desire for an appropriate work-life balance,” says organizational management consultant Phil LaDuke. 

“Greed and economic slowdowns have slashed vacation time and personal leave. Employers expect workers to work longer hours for less pay and workers are less likely to do so. Organized labor has been on the wane in recent decades but we only need another Triangle Shirt Waist fire before we will see a dramatic return, if not to organized labor then to some, as yet unknown, movement toward workers’ rights.”

Leaders who have a sense of balance are rare

“For a business to be successful, should they concentrate on production, quality or safety? Truth is, a balance of these three is the best approach,” says Terry Mathis, CEO, ProAct Safety, Inc.  “A product that is produced but returned because of a defect is not really produced.  A product that is produced at the cost of an injured employee will likely stop production till the injury is addressed and investigated.

“Leaders, like coaches, must create this balance. Their communication and the metrics they use must reflect the balance between these elements
and unite them in the minds of workers. 

“They must create the vision of balance and equate
it with success.  This means avoiding reactive management and embracing proactive interventions.  Leaders must talk about deficits in balance even when they don’t result in failures.  They must positively reinforce the accomplishment of balance and carefully avoid reinforcing a good result in one aspect that was achieved at the cost of others.

“Leaders who have this vision are rare and, even among those who do, few really live and create the reality of such balance.”

“Too many safety professionals just don’t get that safety is 24/7.”

“If we can demonstrate innovation via problem-solving we can justify many of the safety initiatives saving money for the company and perhaps acquiring more new customers,” says Mark Hansen, a former president of the American Society of Safety Engineers and oil and gas industry safety veteran.  “This actually occurred at a previous company — we ended up with more customers.

“Safety professionals have ‘company-provided’ cell phones for a reason. They are not to be turned off at 5 pm on Friday and back on Monday morning. I have tested this just to see if pros respond to my vmails, emails and texts over the weekends and evenings — often to my dismay. I have heard every excuse in the book similar to my dog ate my homework.  We need an equal work to life balance.  My fear is that too many safety professionals just don’t get this concept that safety is 24/7.”

You need trust, caring and self-motivation

“The long-term success of a corporation depends on employees doing the right things (i.e. behavior); but also building interpersonal trust, caring, and self-motivation in the process (i.e., humanism),” says Dr. E. Scott Geller, professor of psychology at Virginia Tech and founding partner in Safety Performance Solutions. 

“Humanistic behaviorism includes: 1) an analysis component to understand what system factors influence desirable and undesirable behavior; 2) an intervention component to apply the behavior analysis information to develop, implement, and evaluate a process to improve targeted behavior; and 3) a caring or humanistic component to conduct the analysis and implement the intervention with optimal acceptance, appreciation, and participation among those impacted by the analysis and intervention.”