Why don’t management and the workforce attack injuries as a team? Maintaining a safe workplace is too often a battle because employees—from hourly workers to management—fail to see the value in safety. To make matters worse, the two groups have such drastically different views of safety that it’s challenging to get them to work together. To remedy this situation, you need to take a look at safety from the perspectives of both managers and workers. Safety is one of those sacred areas for managers. To voice an opinion against it would be suicidal to a management career. Yet most managers have a negative attitude toward safety.

Management’s viewpoint

When I was an operator in a sulfuric acid plant, I had a superintendent who would visit the control room every day. He’d check the production log, laboratory analysis sheet maintenance schedule and time sheets. In the seven years I worked for him, I never heard him ask about a safety meeting, look at the lock and tag book, check the work permit board or even mention safety.

What did his actions tell me? Production was his number one priority. If you had asked him his feelings about safety his response would have been, "Safety is number one."

If management would treat safety more like production, they might view it in a more positive light. For example:

  • Deep down many managers think most injuries are caused by stupidity and carelessness, because they have limited knowledge of how someone was injured. If injuries were given the same attention as production problems this lack of knowledge would be eliminated.

  • Managers are frustrated by inconsistent injury rates. They respond to safety in cycles. When injury rates are high, they attack. When rates go down, they retreat. Continuous improvement is natural when dealing with production or research, but when it comes to safety, this approach is seldom used.

  • Safety training isn’t valued. When a company slashes budgets, safety training is the first to go. The cost benefit of reducing injuries isn’t always made public throughout the plant the way profits or losses in production are.

Workers’ viewpoint

Workers also have a negative attitude toward safety and seem to value production above safety.We had a large turbine in our plant that would vibrate when we put it in service. Jim, one of the toughest old machinists, worked hard on that piece of equipment and met with engineering to correct the vibration problems. Even with Jim’s contrary nature, he knew we needed the turbine and he worked with management until it ran as smoothly as the day it was new. A little later I asked Jim if he’d be interested in serving on the safety committee. He replied, "No thanks, that sounds like a waste of time, I’ve got better things to do." Workers don’t believe safety is a part of their job. It’s easier not to follow what they consider impractical safety rules. As an operator at the sulfuric plant I mentioned earlier, I loaded tank trucks. Our rules required me to wear a chemical splash suit, respirator, gloves and boots when I hooked up hoses to an empty tank truck that would be filled with sulfuric acid. Did I wear that equipment as I made these hook-ups at night when my boss wasn’t around? I have to admit, no.

Though I considered myself a safe worker, I didn’t value the rules. Wearing personal protective equipment when the truck was empty seemed silly. Workers don’t believe management really cares about their pain and suffering. They think safety is just a way to reduce numbers so management will look better.

When numbers are low

Why does the workforce fail to see the value of safety? The value of reduced injuries is apparent. We just don’t seem to relate safety activities, like meetings, to injury reduction, especially when numbers are already low.

If your plant had a terrible safety record, it might be easier to see value in safety initiatives: basic lock and tag, personal protective equipment, and machine guard improvements can make a big impact. But companies that are not so unsafe can’t make such visible reductions.

Where do we go from here?

Here are some suggestions to bring workers and managers together for a united safety effort. Start by bringing a cross-section of employees together on a safety team. If you already have one, take a fresh look and make sure it has the right membership. Utilize the team to implement these items:

1. Answer the standard who, what, when and where questions about your site. Although we think we know this information, we usually know only the details of significant injuries.

2. Identify what works. If injury rates cycle, find out why rates drop at certain times.

3. Have a tool box full of programs. Don’t depend on one element of a safety initiative to carry the entire program.

4. Get management and workers to join forces. Starting with the safety council, find interesting and valuable ways for different levels of employees to work together on safety.

5. Emphasize safety throughout the year. You might focus on safety meetings in January and lockout-tagout in February.

6. Stop seeing each other as enemies. There’s nothing wrong with safety war, as long as we’re on the same side attacking injuries.