U.S. consumer confidence plummeted to all-time depths in December, according to The Conference Board.

Some stunner, eh?

The index of consumer confidence includes consumers’ assessment of current economic conditions, and consumer expectations for the economy in the next six months.

And confidence hasn’t bottomed out yet, according to Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center. The confidence index bears close watching in the coming months for signs that attitudes have reached their nadir, said Franco.

What if you had a safety confidence index for your workplace?

Based on your employees’ current assessment of your safety program, and their expectations for improving or deteriorating safety conditions at your workplace during the first half of 2008, what would your score be?

Is there a parallel between all-time low consumer confidence in economic recovery and worker confidence in their company’s safety commitment and performance?

Indicators of confidence levels

A safety confidence index could include a dashboard of metrics. You could measure:

  • Employee reporting of unsafe conditions;
  • The frequency and quality of employee peer-to-peer observations;
  • Employee reports of injuries, especially minor ones that can be hidden;
  • The level of safety suggestions coming from employees;
  • Personal protective equipment usage compliance;
  • Attendance at safety training sessions and regularly scheduled safety meetings;
  • The number of employees volunteering for safety assignments;
  • The number of hazards abated compared to year-earlier figures;
  • Your safety program resources - budget dollars and staff levels - compared to year-earlier numbers;
  • The frequency of safety communications from you, your supervisors, and your top management compared to last year;

The frequency of top management’s show of support for your safety program - shop floor walkarounds; investments in hazard abatement, new PPE, exposure controls; presence at safety meetings and recognition events.

Current confidence is fragile

Due to the economic mess we’re in, these safety confidence measures are very volatile at the moment. They could go either way - up (expressing employee confidence in your program) or down (expressing apathy, pessimism and perhaps resistance to your safety efforts). We are at a fragile tipping point because many employees feel vulnerable, possessing a wide range of emotions and perceptions.

Your employees could feel stressed, anxious, distracted, fearful, betrayed, angry, apathetic, pessimistic, depressed, traumatized, uncertain, and powerless.

All natural reactions to the economic meltdown.

“The possibly of layoffs is very real for a lot of households this year,” reports The Motely Fool®, an investment services company.

Reading your daily paper or watching the evening news is an exercise in depression these days. Negative reinforcement. Forty-eight percent of businesses laid-off employees in 2008, according to a poll by the Society for Human Resource Management. Six of ten firms surveyed expect to lay off employees in 2009.

In November, employers took 2,328 mass layoff actions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each action involved at least 50 employees from a single employer. From December, 2007 through November, 2008, the number of mass layoff events was 20,712, sending 2,108,743 workers to unemployment lines. Being out of a job isn’t the only concern that can distract many employees from a clear focus on safety rules and procedures, a commitment to do their job safely, and caring about the safety of co-workers.

Fears dominate the day. Of factory closures and business bankruptcies. The loss of a spouse’s income. The possibility of not meeting the monthly mortgage or paying for college tuitions. And anger and anxiety over devastated retirement savings. It seems the whole world is falling apart.

Which way will your employees go?

The safety mindset of employees today depends on external circumstances and internal psychological make-up.

Focus and commitment can be “up” if you’re in a profitable company or industry less damaged by the recession, such as healthcare or energy. If you’re a car salesman, it’s another story.

Psychologically, some employees will decide to seize control at work wherever and however they can to ensure employment security. Volunteering for assignments. Visibly indicating their commitment. Attending meetings (and being on time). Asking the boss or the safety manager what they can do to help the company or the safety program.

These actions of course can benefit your safety program.

Employees who believe now more than ever they will be judged by what one consultant calls “consistent behavior implementation” will not slack off on safety responsibilities or peer-to-peer observations. They will comply with PPE requirements. Attend safety meetings and make safety suggestions. And they are less likely to take risks. Many will want leadership roles and show their sense of ownership of safety processes. All for self-preservation, if not possible advancement in the company.

These employees are confident they can make the best of a bad situation, That motivation will boost your workplace’s safety confidence index.

Then there are employees whose attitudes will score low on Dr. Scott Geller’s five “feeling states” that he says are critical to actively caring about safety:

1. Self-esteem - Demoralized employees in depressed industries can lose faith in their own strengths.

2. Self-efficacy - The belief that you can organize and perform the work needed to accomplish safety goals, that you are competent to do so, can be squashed by crisis-hit companies who adopt more of a command-and-control management style (less autonomy, more directives).

3. Personal control - How much personal control will an employee feel working for a company in crisis? 4. Optimism - Positive thinking takes a pounding if the consequences of one’s actions turn out to be negative (the plant closes, the company axes 10-20 percent of its workforce, your salary is cut or frozen) regardless of individual good intentions and hard work. Dr. Geller is a staunch believer in the power of consequences to shape attitudes and behaviors; right now the prospects of soon, certain and rewarding consequences are slim.

“Pleasant consequences increase behavior, and unpleasant consequences decrease behavior,” writes Dr. Geller in his book, People-Based Safety™: The Source.

5. Belongingness - It’s a mental challenge, to say the least, to feel a sense of pride and connectedness to a business operation that is failing or cutting headcount or slashing costs or resorting to strict command-and-control directives. Feeling you “belong” to an organization requires a foundation of trust in the organization’s values and leadership, and trust today is about as low as yacht sales.

Employees exhibiting depressed “feeling states” in these five areas crucial to safety performance will naturally drag down your safety confidence index. They won’t report injuries. They’ll skip meetings. Won’t make suggestions. Leave goggles and respirators hanging down around their necks. They’ll feel no interest, ownership or accountability regarding safety.

You, the difference maker

You as the safety and health manager can be the difference maker in whether your workplace’s safety confidence index goes up or down in these hard times.

To be sure, you’ll confront restrictions on your ability to tip employees toward a positive direction: gouged budgets; less travel, more conference calls; increased workloads. You can be undercut by supervisors and managers who in crisis mode have no time for safety tasks or talks. Middle management always comes with stress, frustrations and limitations.

Still, put your emotional intelligence to use. Most safety managers have strong EI. Get out from behind the desk and walk the floor, connect to employees, ask questions, listen, empathize. It’s always been vital for safety and health managers to “know their audience,” but never more so than today.

Pressure, stress, anxiety, anger and uncertainty can lead some employees to make unhealthy decisions - going off or reducing medications; increased drinking and smoking; putting off medical tests and screenings; ditching the diet. Some employees might be sleep-deprived. Others seized up because their spouse lost their job, or close a friend at work got laid off. Fatigue and frustration can increase risk-taking.

Do you have a good handle on your workforce’s emotional state?

Here are five steps to boost positive feelings about your safety and health program, motivate employees who are somewhere between giving up or going all out, and to elevate that safety confidence index.

Use your emotional intelligence skills, ask questions, listen, show that you care and continue to give positive one-on-one feedback to boost self-esteem.

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep safety in the forefront. Keep reminders and reinforcers coming. Draw attention to achievements. Maintain the focus on your goals.

2. Build or solidify trust by being as honest and realistic with your employees as company politics permits. Explain, for example, how declining profits increase the need for evidence-based risk assessments and risk prioritization.

3. Steer clear of one-off “fun” safety events aimed to boost morale and team spirit. An afternoon of safety paintball games can easily be perceived as lame, superficial management ploys.

4. Stay visible, keep your door open, take on all questions and concerns, ask for input, and have the touch of a diplomat. Keep meetings from devolving into gripe sessions. Confront PPE non-compliance and risk-taking without acting like a drill sergeant.

It’s been said safety and health managers often serve as the conscience of the organization. That contribution is crucial today, amid the scandals and management ineptitude and knee-jerk reactions to doom-and-gloom forecasts. But now is no time to ride your high horse. Chaotic times warrant sensitive diplomacy, both with employees and managers.