We’ve dealt with a lot of organizations at SCM, helping them get into compliance and build positive safety cultures and in this process we’ve talked with a lot of supervisors and managers. A consistent theme seems to come up in these conversations – why don’t employees know how important safety is to me? The specific comment or concern may vary, such as wondering why employees don’t report near-misses, or why employees do something “unsafe,” but the basic question is the same and the underlying assumption is that if only the employees knew how important safety was they would do the right thing. The question we often ask our clients in situations like this is how their employees could know that safety is important to the organization generally, and to the supervisor/manager specifically.
Think of someone you know who’s a big football fan. How do you know they like football? Likely because they talk about it a lot and have other pieces of evidence that you can point to that lead you to that conclusion. You can’t just look at someone and assume that they like football - you need evidence.
So where’s the evidence that safety matters to you? Sure safety should just implicitly matter to everyone, but your employees also have other concerns when they come to work, such as being efficient and doing a good job. Unfortunately sometimes the concerns of efficiency conflict with safety, and employees have to make a decision. One of the strategies they’ll use in making that decision is to make a conscious or unconscious (usually unconscious) assessment of how important efficiency and safety are to you and your organization based on how often each one is emphasized. If you talk a lot about productivity and quality, but not about safety, it won’t matter how important you feel safety is in that moment. Your employee will be very likely to put safety second.
So how can we avoid this? Its simple – if you want your employees to know how important safety is to you then you need to tell them…and then tell them again. And keep telling them every chance you get. In every planning meeting, ask them if they have identified relevant hazards and what they are doing to reduce the risks. At the end of the job ask them if they encountered any hazards that they didn’t foresee or if they had any near-misses. It doesn’t take that long but your employees will begin to notice. And when employees notice that their supervisors and managers really care for them based on real evidence that’s when you start to see changes in the culture, towards a strong safety culture.