One safety culture dimension does not get the scrutiny and attention it deserves – perception gaps in organizations. It can easily get overlooked, and create problems that relate directly to safety, productivity, and morale. The importance often slips and slides so insidiously, so imperceptibly, and so gradually, that it gets away from our notice much too painlessly. That is, until the pain and pushback from our workers is heard more loudly and disruptively. 

The perception gap that exists regarding materials, tools, and equipment is one of the more disturbing findings that leaders often discover in a climate survey or hear in safety focus groups.  Oftentimes many employees don’t believe they have all the tools and equipment needed to do their jobs safely, especially when compared to the views of their supervisors, managers, and senior leaders.  At the same time, many employees don’t believe their tools and equipment are well maintained.  Even in many very good organizations, it isn’t unusual to see only 60 to 70 percent of surveyed workers who believe they have the necessary tools and equipment to work safely – tools and equipment that are also well maintained. 

Difference of opinion

In contrast, front-line supervisors typically have better opinions regarding the tools and equipment used by their personnel. With these leaders, roughly 75 to 85 percent feel that employees have what they need in order to work in a safe manner. Moving further away from the work, up the organizational ladder, close to 100 percent of senior leaders often believe workers have what is needed in order to work safely. 

Nothing brings about more employee frustration, resistance, and anger than not having the right tools and equipment needed for their jobs. By having good tools and equipment, which are well maintained, you develop increased levels of employee trust and commitment to safety. In addition, the vision you have for greater levels of safety achievement is much more of a possibility because workers become more engaged in safety and the shared vision.

How to move leaders to act

This leads to a secondary theme, which goes beyond materials, tools, and equipment. We have to use multiple means to move our leaders to action. For most leaders, findings such as these can be quite perplexing; however, there is also good news. For one, numbers-driven leaders often need this kind of survey data in order to take more definitive steps. And these types of perception gaps (as they relate to tools and equipment) are usually closely tied to logistical and budgetary issues that can be fixed with relative ease. 

So by all means, use data from climate surveys, BBS data, and historical data – all of which have an intellectual, logical, and cognitive appeal.  Also use stories that have an emotional aspect that will help call your leaders to action and will also help to close a variety of perception gaps, beyond those already discussed.  All of this requires that you further listen to your employees, and take action, where you can and should take action.

Common sense is not common

All of this is so basic and commonsensical, right? Well, yes, but common sense is not all that common today. We often think that getting to higher levels of sustained achievement takes more sophisticated and complex approaches; sometimes it does. But we regularly get lost in our busyness and lose sight of the basics. Still, we must ensure the right tools and equipment are available, well maintained, and accessible.  And we have to assure that we work hard to close other known perception gaps, too. For our workers and leaders, their perception is their reality, and people act on their view of their own particular realities. Realities sometimes need to change through our decisive and supportive actions. 

Improving this very basic cultural dimension is critically important for building trust and getting people to believe in your vision for safety. It’s so basic that it can be easily overlooked or dismissed. 

It may be time to engage your leaders a bit differently by using good data, and most importantly by listening to your leaders and employees a bit more so you can take appropriate actions for sustainable improvement.

Finally, it may be time to survey your people and gain a more objective understanding of what your workers think and feel in order to get this fundamental dimension right – like right away!