This article will focus on:
  • The first pillar of safety — employee engagement — a fundamental necessity without which safety improvements are difficult at best and a good safety culture is virtually impossible.

I define the “Four Pillars of Safety” as engagement, recognition, communications and measurement.

How important is engagement?

If you were to ask c-suite executives to identify pillars of safety, they would probably name training, risk management, PPE, monitoring, route cause analysis, culture, etc.

While these all relate to safety, they should largely be considered safety tactics or measurement tools and not the support structures that truly promote a safe workplace. All these things roll up into one or more of the four pillars listed above.

A safety harness, after all, is useless, or even harmful, if not worn properly. And the training necessary for proper usage is of little value if not administered properly. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but training a group of disengaged workers is a bit like herding cats (cats that may be on their phones checking their fantasy baseball team’s stats or thinking about what to have for lunch instead of really absorbing the training).

Safety professionals know all too well how difficult it can be to get the mind share necessary to have the wide variety of safety-related messages heard and even more difficult to get their workers to internalize them. They have come to realize, even if their bosses have not, that the best tools, tactics and data will not move the safety needle if they don’t have engaged workers.

Engagement is defined as “an emotional involvement or commitment,” and it is a fundamental need of any organization. It is the connection point between employees and the people they interact with in their daily work. Next time your boss wants to know what you plan to do to improve your incident rate, you will do well to point in its direction.

A lack of commitment

There is a growing field of research that looks at employee engagement and related performance issues both in the academic and business worlds, and the data is mounting. According to a study conducted by Human Capital Institute, only 11 percent of today’s workforce demonstrates a very strong commitment to their organization. In a webinar that I delivered last year for ISHN entitled “Safety Soup,” I asked the attendees what they thought the percentage was in their organizations, and the most popular answer was 50-74 percent. The nexus between perception and reality is all telling on this issue.

One of the main reasons for this lack of commitment in my opinion is the poor connection not just between any given employee and their immediate supervisor but between an employee and the myriad of other people in the organization that they interact with (or that they could interact with under different circumstances).

Creating a more engaging environment, i.e. making or improving the connections, is a necessary first step in improving organizational safety.

Two of the other safety pillars — recognition and communications — contribute heavily to successful employee engagement, but much like training they are not engagement itself. A robust employee communications plan will again fall on deaf ears and recognition will seem hollow if proper connections have not been established. This is the “heavy lifting” with the big pay-off for those who take the time to truly consider how to accomplish the goal of creating a more engaging atmosphere in the workplace.

Safety managers take the lead

Safety managers may wonder why this responsibility falls on them. Engagement is the responsibility of the managers and the people with the most direct contact to the employees. For a safety sensitive workforce, this is often the safety manger.

Once a safety manager comes to grips with this need, they should ask themselves, “What can I do to get everyone in my sphere of influence to connect better?” Write down every idea that pops into your head no matter how outrageous or unattainable it may seem and don’t dismiss any idea in the early stages. Ask other key managers and employees to do the same; white board every idea articulated and then consider each one individually in a group discussion. There is no way for me to predict what you might come up with because each environment is so different. However, below is a list of some things I have heard from other companies that may help you visualize the results you can expect:

  • Create a wellness program – Get healthy together with weight loss and exercise competitions. Hire a permanent trainer, form teams and give awards to the best performers.
  • Trading places – Use job shadowing, allow meeting crashers, and/or ask managers to work an occasional shift in different departments.
  • Friendly competitions – Create more ways to compete as individuals and teams on internal objectives like safety or external things like a bowling league.
  • Throw more parties – Have breakfast gatherings or cookouts with families. Dole out recognition of accomplishment in front of families and coworkers.
  • Create a rewards system – Publicly recognize and reward our best workers for their efforts and accomplishments. Create a centralized program site where people can redeem for tangible awards.
  • Ask the employees – Broaden the request and get more employee feedback about how they like to be engaged.
  • Message boards – Put up message boards around the company and draw attention to employee accomplishments both at work and at home.
  • Hire an engagement officer – Find and hire a person to promote engagement 24/7/365.
  • Study the good ones – Identify our most engaging workers and study what they do.
  • Break some rules – Identify rules that are counterproductive and show workers that change can be a good thing.
  • Charitable contribution – Identify five charities that we can support as a group and give workers paid time to take part in charitable activities.
  • Group adventures – Go zip lining, whitewater rafting or create a paint ball league.

One thing that can be counted on no matter what the suggestions: the more face-to-face meaningful interactions that take place, the better engaged your workforce will become. Whether you resolve to switch to in-person training (instead of electronic) or to create a bowling league, person-to-person interactions are a fundamental piece of the puzzle — especially as the world grows increasingly more distracted.