Here’s a definition of trust: 1) assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something; 2) one in which confidence is placed; 3) belief that someone or something is good and honest and effective.

Today there is something of a trust gap in society. Just take this test — do you trust:



Injury and illness records?

Behavioral observation cards?

The media?



Your next flight not being cancelled or delayed?

Your job security?

Corporate sustainability reports?

Athletes not on performance-enhancing drugs?

Wall Street money-makers?

Teachers not fudging pupils’ scores to make their competence/proficiency “grade”?

MapQuest directions?

Your computer not being infected?

President Obama and his advisers?

Third-party audits of voluntary health and safety management systems?

Contractors and sub-contractors in a global supply chain?

Photographs that haven’t been “Photoshopped”?

Customer call centers in far-off countries?

and so on…

The trust gap

This trust gap is particularly bedeviling for the purposes of workplace safety and health. The dictionary uses as a common example of trust: “Good relationships are built on trust.” And of course, what is worksite safety if not an interconnected network of relationships. Relationships that involve the CEO and/or owner, the board of directors, senior business unit executives, middle managers, supervisors, safety and health personnel, human resources, maintenance, the IT department, team leaders, line employees, telecommuting employees, temporary employees and contract employees.

Have you conducted a perception survey of your employees about their level of trust regarding the attitudes and actions of senior leaders, supervisors, safety and health staff, and co-workers when it comes to safety matters? If results are anything like we see in national surveys, you’ll find evidence of a lack of trust – which can have negative consequences on absenteeism rates, turnover, shrinkage, safety incident rates, quality, productivity, and worker engagement.

Why does the trust gap exist? The public doesn’t trust its federal government. Politicians don’t trust each other. They don’t trust reporters. That feeling is mutual. ISHN surveys over the years show a minority of safety and health pros trust OSHA when it comes to effective standards-setting and/or skillful, knowledgeable enforcement. Many don’t trust their own workforce to do right by safety. Many employees don’t trust their organization’s leadership when it speechifies about safety. Codes of conduct, mission statements, core values, written safety and health plans are subject to significant skepticism.

Relationship killers

The trust problem is one of time and distance. Time, in terms of how fast it moves these days — speed kills trust. The roads are too crowded, the skies are too crowded, airports are too crowded. All with fast-moving objects. Reporters don’t have time to thoroughly research findings. Politicians don’t have the time, nor the inclination, to get together after-hours, have some drinks, converse, and cross aisles like they did back in the day of LBJ or Tip O’Neill. Now those were slow times, weren’t they? There’s not enough time to train properly, conduct thorough audits, thoroughly assess and prioritize risks. Emails must be responded to ASAP. Phone conversations are becoming prehistoric. Who has the time to attend a local safety and health association chapter meeting during lunch break, or heaven forbid, after work? Increasingly, who has time to attend national society meetings?

Then there is the distance factor. Distance does no favors to relationships. The best work relationships probably exist in small businesses with low turnover and a “family feeling.” That feeling gets lost in the vast distances of global multinationals. Teleconferences and videoconferences don’t have the same “feel” or face-to-face intimacy of the old-fashioned conference room meeting. The same can be said for online education, though many will disagree. Most seem to want a hybrid of ‘blended” learning – mix the in-person with the online.

Work is becoming, has become, more fragmented. We have more employees working from home. We have more temporary workers and independent contractors. We have more workers here today, gone tomorrow. Who were they? There are more and more workers who seldom if ever see co-workers face to face. We talk less and email more. Or text message or post on Facebook.

All this is a recipe for relationships that lack backbone. There is a dearth of up-close-and-personal knowledge and confidence among coworkers. Bottom line: a lack of trust. The exception that proves the rule is the small business with long-tenured, loyal employees who know things, personal things, about each other’s lives. Decades ago companies with award-winning safety programs were researched by NIOSH to learn what made them tick. It turns out most of the companies had less than 200 employees, low turnover, high loyalty, that “family feeling” or culture, ties to a local small town, and the opportunity for many “safety contacts” and safety conversations. It’s human nature that we care more about the people closest to us.

Let’s get small

Here’s to trying to slow it down and get small. Today’s rather frantic pace calls for a conscious effort to slow things down, carve out time for safety contacts, safety pre-shift briefings, toolbox talks that aren’t superficial, morning stretching exercises, time-consuming incident investigations and plant-wide audits. It’s too easy to skim the surface and be shallow when it comes to safety matters. Hurry up, get the meeting or the briefing or the training class or the observation or the feedback conversation over with and get back to work.

You can get small by breaking down the workforce into teams and cells. The military has long understood that size matters; that’s why there are squads of ten soldiers, platoons of maybe 30 or 40, and companies of about 200. Two hundred is about the largest size that can be cohesively managed or directed as a unit. Beyond that, you lose the human touch. Lose the feelings of belongingness, ownership, accountability and interdependence — “we’re in this together.” “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine.”

Want to build up trust? Make a commitment to slow things down, as much as is in your power with regard to safety and health matters. Close distances. Compensate for the disconnected workforce by consciously dividing safety and health work into small units of employees – teams, work cells, department by department, shift by shift. Instead of sending another email, go out, walk around, ask some questions and listen. It’s being civil, respectful and humane. And what’s worker safety and health if not perhaps the most humane element of an organization?