At the start of 2020, we decided to hold a monthly roundtable with our clients. Each month, we gather three or four safety professionals and ask them to share their thoughts on what is happening in the world of EHS. Our panelists come from various types of companies and industries, and from diverse safety backgrounds and roles.
As we start a new year, we looked back and reflected on what we learned from talking to these safety experts throughout the first year. It’s been an incredible experience that resulted in a lot of knowledge sharing and learning opportunities. We’re grateful to have so many smart and talented clients willing to share their time and wisdom. Below are eight takeaways we have learned from a year of hosting safety roundtables.
Once the pandemic hit, it obviously became everyone’s priority. It actually became difficult to hold a monthly roundtable with how immersed we all became in coronavirus response. Different industries got hit in different ways, but it become the top answer when we asked what were the most important safety issues this year or what are the biggest challenges facing EHS today. Besides what you would expect to hear on coronavirus prevention, we also heard some other interesting takes - from how to deal with PPE shortages in the early days of the pandemic to potential violence around mask wearing/shaming. Several of our panelists noted recently that we all need to be mindful that this does not become a distraction that causes us to be complacent in our day-to-day safety programs.
Total Worker Health
Many EHS professionals are moving to a holistic view of safety and health. We saw this in our “20 For 2020” trends piece last year and it continued during our roundtables this year. From Total Worker Health® to International Standardization (ISO) to custom “safety 365” initiatives, employers are looking beyond the walls of the job site and beyond 9:00-5:00. As one of our participants in September noted, “Thinking holistically about safety creates engagement by not thinking about safety as just work rules to follow.” Another added, “While it will may not be the easiest undertaking, it shows commitment from the company and leadership to providing a safe and healthy workplace.” A strong safety culture is a goal for EHS professionals and these holistic efforts contribute to a strong practice.
Relationships are critical
Much of the success in safety roles depends on relationships. In almost every roundtable session, we hear how important it is to listen, to develop personal relationships and have one-to-one contact with employees. It’s the foundation of the role and opens the door for communication and better understanding. When things break down or the pressure is on, you can rely on that foundation to have the honest conversations you need. You don’t want to be regarded as Big Brother from 1984. Sometimes you need to get one-on-one to create the connection between someone at your site and the purpose of your program. And don’t forget to acknowledge those that do well with recognition and praise. In the words of one of our experts, “Safety is not something that should be done TO employees, but instead done WITH employees.”
It’s not just important for safety mangers and the employees in the program. We heard how beneficial it is to build strong and meaningful relationships throughout the organization. Nothing is done in a silo and you are going to need the partnership of engineering, maintenance and other departments. And don’t forget senior leadership. Not only will you need relationships at the senior level to accomplish your goals, but showing that safety applies to everyone at all levels helps with buy-in throughout the organization.
Lastly, we heard about the advantage of making connections with others safety professionals. Networking with other safety peers help us grow professionally, gain knowledge and get help. Industry groups and trade shows help create those networking opportunities. As one of our September contributors noted, there are so many “great voices out there willing to share their knowledge”.
Safety is not “one size fits all”
Safety is not a one size fits all solution. In more than one roundtable, our panelists advised to learn about the details of your industry, your company and your people. Only then can you tailor your programs and solutions for your specific situation, rather than just making generic recommendations. A deep understanding of your specific conditions & circumstances will help you avoid a cookie-cutter approach that doesn’t solve for your needs. Since the breadth and scope of topics a safety pro needs to learn is vast, creating a map of your practice space and the specific needs of your organization helps you focus on results for your company.
Safety philosophy is sometimes not even standard across a single company. Observers noted that individual plants or facilities have nuances and intricacies that could be different from corporate views. While balancing priorities is a challenge, understanding the needs at the local level is imperative to develop a productive safety practice.
Never stop learning
Speaking of networking, we always hear how important it is to never stop learning. Staying sharp is critical as things change rapidly in the industry. There are always new rules to know, but also new ways to improve safety programs. There are many resources our participants use to improve. One of our roundtables contained a discussion on micro training - informal and brief learning that takes place in social interactions. During that discussion, it was noted that while there's still a place for traditional training, newer forms of training can give safety professionals additional communication touchpoints and enhance what was learned in traditional settings. However you choose to learn, staying in perpetual student mode and being a curious learner creates a mindset of continued improvement. The more knowledge you can share, the better off your team will be.
Creating a “safety culture” is never ending
Just as you should look to keep evolving personally, the same goes for your safety program. There is an old business analogy about painting the golden gate bridge – as soon as you reach the end, it’s time to start over again. In actuality, the bridge is painted continuously. It is an ongoing task at all times and a principal job of the maintenance group. And that is an apt analogy for developing a safety culture.
Our sessions always touch on ways to keep people engaged with safety. Time and again we hear that this is a difficult challenge for EHS and needs to be looked at with a continuous improvement mindset. One of our discussions noted that it is a fine line between too few organized efforts and too many, which can hinder an effective program. Other damaging factors to your efforts are not being fully committed - not enforcing your own policies is the quickest way to lose credibility.
Our experts talk about shifting away from a compliance mentality. Your teams need a reason to invest their energy and will likely resist if they feel forced. Think about how often you use OSHA as an excuse or reason to do something. In the words of one of our specialists, don’t just “throw up that OSHA flag”. Shifting from a compliance mentality, that may feel tyrannical, to a more engaging safety culture mentality may get better results. One of our sessions produced this reminder and bit of wisdom: “The goal of safety is not to avenge policies that may have been broken; the goal is to prevent people from getting hurt or even killed.”
Connecting regularly with safety thought leaders is a great way to spot trends and identify themes, helping us stay ahead of the curve. There are a few topics that come up enough that its worth taking note. For instance, several participants called out the aging workforce and generational differences in the workforce. This is also a carryover trend from our “20 For 2020” trends piece. One aspect is the risk posed from the physical effects of aging, such as increased ergonomic danger and effects on a hearing conservation program. Another important factor to consider that may not seem obvious is how different generations learn. Figuring out how to best accommodate the attitudes and desires of younger workers toward learning and technology will be crucial for safety managers to navigate.
Another topic that has been mentioned throughout the year is violence in the workplace. From politics and mask-shaming to the stressful developments of this year to mental health issues, this is a concern that is growing. Promoting a violence-free work environment is something that EHS should be thinking about now.
Make it fun
When in doubt, give out prizes. If we did a word cloud of all our roundtables this year, “prize” may be one of the biggest terms. Not to make light of safety, we heard often from our participants that having fun and creating engaging experiences is a great way to have a successful safety program.
Throughout the year, we heard how different safety managers create engagement. Many teams use rewards, points, prizes, contests and food to promote participation. One safety pro told us how she brings in the local Fire Department and allows employees to bring their family to create a powerful mix of education, connection and fun.
It’s really about empowering your people. Keeping it fun, fresh and interesting helps with engagement. But more importantly it gets your teams to contribute and make it personal. Changing up meeting formats & styles and giving others a chance to participate & share helps increase interaction. The fun and games have a purpose - when employees actively participate and observe, it ultimately helps meet your safety goals.