Safety professionals have often bemoaned that they must continually “plead for management support” for safety programs. But lack of management commitment is more a perception than reality.

Let me explain. I have seldom found an executive who was not genuinely interested in worker safety. He might be frustrated because he does not understand how to “fix” his safety program. Frequently, top management operates out of an illusion that they are making some headway and things are not as bad as they really are.

Rarely, though, is there true lack of management commitment.

Why no results?

Top managers tend to feel frustrated because they clearly state the safety value, trying to sell their vision, but no one seems to step forward and take charge. Perhaps the safety problem has not been clearly defined because it’s shrouded in the culture and cannot yet be solved. It often appears that programs and systems should work, but the results do not emerge. Here’s why:

1) Middle managers hear (what may be) “rhetoric” from upper management, but are confronted with the reality of mixed messages caused by such things as cost cutting and downsizing. Safety gets lip service, but meeting production schedules gets priority. Since middle managers are usually held responsible for production, they typically opt to get the product out the door rather than hold the line on other values.

2) Workers know there are safety problems. But they tend to feel undervalued because no one asks their opinion. Workers hear the lip service from top management but experience mixed messages when pressure and stress spell out real-world priorities. “Just get the work out.” Feeling at risk, knowing it could be better, but resigned about the current situation, employees have little left to do but complain.

As long as nothing happens to break this stalemate, the old culture persists. What must be done? You need to reveal the culture, the atmosphere that causes a safety problem to occur.

Piercing the fog

The most powerful and effective thing to do is to conduct a perception survey to determine what is really happening. Ask people in the organization, anonymously, what they think. Basically, the survey provides a pipeline of information directly from workers to upper management, bypassing the blockage of middle management. This can be done using a statistically valid survey tool and/or the interview method.

For example, many interviews were conducted last fall in a survey done for a utility company, and a pilot perception survey was done on one of their units. About 500 people were interviewed in a month, and the CEO was then presented the results.

“I was afraid it might be this bad and you confirmed my worst suspicions,” he said. He described the findings as an out-of-body experience, and he took immediate action to begin correcting the situation.

Triggering involvement

The key to “fixing” a safety problem, or creating a new safety culture, is involvement. Perception survey results trigger involvement. Even those most set in their ways have trouble rejecting real data. Just remember, all of the issues identified by the perception survey cannot be solved at once. Form problem-solving work groups representing a cross-section of your organization. Work groups should be formed around each of the lowest rated safety categories revealed by the survey to analyze problems and devise a plan that resolves them.

The hardest part of this entire process is deciding to do the perception survey. Once complete, the results provide top management with the information to plan and implement specific changes.