Establishing a safe workplace requires more than PPE and policy. Training and performance management are critical, but only go so far, and all the visual cues, scrolling monitors and pithy slogans in the world won’t make your workplace sustainably safe and healthy.

Safety must be entrenched and permeate every corner of the organization. Employees need to think about safety continuously, looking out for one another and proactively identifying safety hazards and improvement opportunities.

To build a culture of safety, you need to knit together all discrete EHS initiatives into a cohesive narrative that is ingrained in every activity, every decision and every encounter that employees undertake every day.

Critical cultural connection

Consistent, frequent and integrated communication is the critical connector that ties together EHS outputs and builds culture. Unfortunately, too many EHS professionals view communications strictly as a set of tactics (i.e., posting random flyers, sending e-mail alerts inconsistently, etc.) rather than a strategic imperative that can drive a culture.

It’s a reasonable position. After all, quantifying return on communication investment is often difficult, and in a world where productivity is king, spending time on integrated communication activities can seem burdensome to the average EHS leader.

A new communications model is needed to ensure that you can continue to communicate and drive cultures of safety without requiring heavy investments of time or money.

This model relies on repeatable methods that can be ingrained into the everyday interactions of managers and others, leveraging existing activities without adding expenses to the plant’s P&L statement or additional tasks to EHS’s already daunting workload.

Numerous practical communication techniques can drive a culture of safety. Here are three examples:

1. Ingrain safety into every interaction

Every interaction with employees is an opportunity to reinforce the organization’s commitment to safety. You don’t need to add superfluous meetings to the schedule to do it right.

Simply establish this policy — all formal gatherings of three or more employees must begin with a brief safety topic. The topic should relate to the team, but doesn’t need to be onerous or lengthy. 

To make the expectation more palatable for managers or supervisors, consider this technique: An EHS team developed a basic file sharing system using the free Google Sites platform. EHS professionals then populated the page directly with safety topic ideas and suggestions, which were made available to managers and meeting leaders throughout the organization. 

Other employees, including plant operators and line staff, were asked to participate by contributing their own topics to the site, multiplying the effect of the program. 

The initiative was extended to other stakeholders—including customers, suppliers, investors and owners—with whom meetings began with a basic safety tip (e.g., directions to emergency exits, safety during winter driving, etc.) to reinforce the company’s commitment to EHS performance.

2. Show employees why safety matters

From a safety perspective, making the case that daily work impacts the world in a meaningful way allows company and EHS leadership to show how safe work allows the business to continue contributing to society. “Work safely, make and ship product, change the world,” can be a very powerful message.

In a manufacturing environment, making the connection between work and meaning can be difficult. After all, manufactured products often are not consumed directly by end users. The goal is to clearly connect the dots between daily work and the end use of products, and then integrate those stories into existing communication channels.

This practical technique was used at a manufacturer of fall protection equipment for the construction and industrial markets. Because the company’s products were mainly used at closed job sites, employees within the plant had little visibility to the equipment in use and seldom interacted with end customers (the equipment was sold mainly through distribution).

Ironically, a company that sold safety equipment did not have a culture of safety in place.

To address this disconnect, a practical communication program was implemented to share real-world stories of the end uses of the company’s products (e.g., details of the skyscrapers, bridges and schools that were built with the company’s safety equipment on site).

A key element of the program was a set of core messages that connected safe work with the end uses of product. The messages were developed for use by managers and leaders within the organization, ensuring that the communication could be shared without requiring additional staff, technologies or a high-priced agency.

Following program rollout, leadership immediately began seeing an improvement in enthusiasm and safety performance among employees, who were visibly excited by the narrative and the societal benefits that resulted from their daily work. 

3. Rhetorically prioritize safety

Clearly, profit and productivity are essential to a company’s survival. They need to be measured and tracked accordingly. However, the order in which an organization discusses key metrics can have an implicit impact on employee behavior. 

When reporting metrics to employees, managers should lead with safety (e.g., TRIR, recordable injuries, proactive near-miss reports, etc.). Similarly, corporate scorecards need to be designed to emphasize safety metrics and send a clear message to employees that safety performance is the most valued metric and the expectation of safe work supersedes all other performance drivers.

While financial or productivity results should (and must) not be ignored, they should be positioned as subordinate to the core issue of safety.

These low-cost practical communication techniques can be incorporated into daily activities by individual managers and EHS professionals. They can be implemented immediately, helping to move the dial and drive a culture of safety without delay.