For more than 20 years, our organization, Safety Performance Solutions (SPS), has provided safety culture training and assessment for hundreds of companies worldwide. During this time, we’ve heard many positive and negative comments from employees about how organizational safety is managed. This article highlights these opinions from several sources, including:  

  • More than 300,000 responses from our Safety Culture Survey
  • Onsite structured interviews and assessments of safety management systems
  • Employee discussions during on-site education/training

In most organizations employees appreciate management efforts to improve safety and perceptions of management support for safety have improved over the years. This is reflected in the norms (or averages) from the results of our safety culture survey. In 2008, 73% of respondents agreed with the item, “Site management seems genuinely interested in reducing injuries.” Ten years later, that percentage has increased to 81%. Although most employees believe organizational safety is improving, they still have suggestions for further improvement. This article summarizes ten key issues revealed in employee surveys and interpersonal discussions. 

1. Hire More People and Pay Them More

Employees are increasingly saying managers in their companies don’t hire enough people for the job and they fail to backfill positions when people retire. Insufficient personnel often leads to frustration, irritation, and may encourage safety-related shortcuts when there are too few people to do the job safely (e.g., “This is a five-person job and there’s only two of us to do it.”). This is especially pronounced when production pressure is amped up or when organizational units fall behind schedule.1

Hiring the right people matters too. One employee recently said his company’s hiring policy consists of simply “finding a warm body who can pass the drug test.” Hiring skilled and self-motivated employees on the front end reduces safety, production, and morale issues on the back end. In some cases where wages are low, talented new workers learn the relevant skills they need for the job and then leave the company to be compensated more appropriately elsewhere.

2. Don’t Blame People When They Get Hurt

Some management groups use root-cause analyses to determine the source of injuries. Clearly there is not a single cause when an employee gets hurt. Safety-related shortcuts lead to most injuries but these risky actions are almost always influenced by system factors like excessive production pressure, unavailable tools/equipment, insufficient manpower, ineffective training, and confusing/incomplete procedures.2

In our Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) training, we continually emphasize that system factors need to be assessed and improved when employees are injured. Historically, employees are too often blamed following injuries.3 As Dekker points out, “Underneath every simple, obvious story about ‘human error,’ there is a deeper, more complex story about the organization.”4

And Deming reminded us decades ago, “Don’t blame people for problems created by the system.”5 So, the first question when someone gets injured should be ‘where did the system fail?’ Unfortunately, employees often feel blamed following injuries and only 46% of survey respondents reported, “Discipline for safety violations is fair and consistent.” Also, employees sometimes believe management overreacts to minor injuries. One individual in Tennessee complained about the amount of paperwork he had to complete after being bitten by a spider while working outside. Employees may not report minor injuries because they don’t want to deal with the amount of hassles, paperwork, and embarrassment that may follow.

3. Solicit Employee Input when Determining and Updating Safety Rules

During training sessions, employees recognize the importance of establishing and following safety rules to prevent injuries and fatalities. However, many express concerns about knee-jerk reactions and blanket safety policies following injuries that don’t always make sense or apply to their jobs.

Policies are often warranted and can be life saving. However, they can also be frivolous and non-applicable in certain situations. As an example, one plant manager outlawed baseball caps after finding out an employee who suffered a head injury said he thought the cap he was wearing was his hardhat. The next morning employees expressed their displeasure by showing up to work with football helmets, cowboy hats, and one even had an authentic Mexican sombrero on his head (but no baseball cap).

In another example, a steel-mill manager decided to fire any employee caught not locking out/tagging out power on a particular piece of equipment. Employees had been bypassing this, in part, to save time in an environment that had extremely high production pressure. Thus, the manager’s approach was understandable given the severity of this infraction. However, the safety director intervened and they came up with a different approach. He met with select employees, supervisors and engineers and they redesigned the process to de-energize the equipment in half the steps and in half the time. This eliminated the problem. What appeared to be an enforcement issue was really a “solicit input from your people” issue.

Obtaining input from employees regarding certain policies leads to more practical rules that employees are more likely to follow and supervisors feel more comfortable supporting. Also, the rationale for new policies or rule changes should be shared immediately with employees. They may not always like the changes, but they’ll appreciate the effort to let them know why the changes were made.

4. Don’t Let Production Pressure Trump Safety

Companies clearly need to be productive and profitable. If an organization fails to remain competitive and viable, there is no ‘company safety’ mission. On average, company leaders have been doing a better job at balancing safety and production needs. Sixty-five percent of respondents, versus 49% in 2008, agreed, “Senior managers do not put production ahead of safety.” Similarly, 63% agreed, “My supervisor does not put production ahead of safety” compared to only 47% agreement in 2008.

However, employees still report that safety is sometimes compromised by production schedules, overtime, and staffing. Here are a few relevant interview responses:

  • “Safety gets overlooked in the workplace because of the high demands of our job. When people are faced with multiple deadlines, it is easy for safety to get put on the back burner.”
  • “Pressure to catch up with schedules means multi-tasking when we're low on head count which can be a high safety risk.”
  • “Production pressure puts inexperienced employees at risk. They always say ‘do it this way’ just one more time.”
  • “Excessive overtime has been a huge concern for me in recent months. I’ve worked over 90 hours of overtime in the last month alone. I am physically exhausted and it is taking a significant toll on my work/life balance.”

Bottom line: Excessive production pressure may contribute to bad morale, at-risk safety shortcuts, and corresponding injuries/fatalities. Organization leaders need to effectively and routinely balance safety and production demands.

5. Increase One-On-One Feedback between Managers and Employees

Employees want managers to understand the safety issues they’re dealing with; and managers, in turn, want to know what they can do to help employees remain safe. Employees generally believe management is trying to improve safety. Eighty-one percent report, “Senior managers seem genuinely interested in reducing injuries.”

However, only 60% of workers agreed with the item, “Senior managers fully understand the real safety issues in the workplace.” This may be due, in part, to infrequent conversations between managers and supervisors. Less than half (49%) of all respondents agreed, “Senior managers spend time talking one-on-one with employees about safety.”

Managers should spend more time talking one-on-one with employees about safety issues. This develops relationships and builds trust. It also increases managers’ empathy regarding challenging safety issues employees deal with and helps employees understand the daily challenges of managers. It also allows leaders to provide recognition for safe work practices observed. Only 54% of respondents agree, “My supervisor often gives me positive feedback when s/he sees me working safely.” Increasing supportive feedback for safe work practices increases their occurrence in the future and creates a more positive safety culture.