Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Stop Telling Your Employees That Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility

There are a number of favorite sayings that we have in the safety world that we use like static cheerleaders to get ourselves and our employees (but mostly for our employees) all pumped up about safety in our workplaces. There are things like “safety first” or “safety doesn’t happen by accident,” both of which are overused and oversimplified things to say. These often get put on posters or we’ve even seen them put on floor mats, which is kind of funny if you think about it. These sayings get plastered all over our organizations, similar to advertisements, which sort of implies that we have to sell safety to our employees (and that is a whole other discussion and blog unto itself).

One saying that often gets put up there that we think has some merit, but often is misused in organizations is “safety is everyone’s responsibility.” Have you used that statement before in your organization? We have. It makes sense, right? Safety requires people working together, asking questions, identifying risk, and doing what is needed to reduce risk. Everyone has a role to play, a responsibility to themselves and others. Safety really does involve responsibilities for everyone.

So what’s with the title of the blog then?

Here’s the thing – whenever we hear organizations use that statement “safety is everyone’s responsibility” it is ALWAYS directed at workers. Although we’ve heard safety managers and supervisors tell employees that safety is everyone’s responsibility in many training classes and tailgate meetings, we’ve not once heard someone say that in a manager’s meeting. And even though many organizations plaster the walls with posters that highlight how safety is everyone’s job in employee locker rooms and break rooms, we’ve never seen such a poster in the corporate conference room or the safety manager’s office.

Communication between humans is an interesting thing. Even when we aren’t talking or doing other forms of active communication, we are still communicating. The lack of active communication says something about the values and beliefs of the communicator. So when we tell line employees that safety is everyone’s responsibility but we do not feel the need to tell anyone else in the organization that safety is everyone’s responsibility, what are we communicating about our values and beliefs?

Think about it – the only way that only telling line employees can make sense is if:
  • Somehow line employees have either a mental or motivational deficiency that others in the organization do not have, or
  • Line employees have a special, greater responsibility that reminding them about will somehow help them appreciate and then take the appropriate actions. 

To the first point, employees have the most to lose. If an accident happens they are the ones who suffer the most, because they are the ones who get hurt or killed. The stakes don’t really get much higher for them. So, we don’t think motivation is really the problem here. Perhaps it is a mental deficiency then. Perhaps our workers are especially dumb. We hope that no one really believes this, but if you do take a look at this blog.

Ok, to the second point, about our workers having a special responsibility that reminding them of will somehow make better, we’re pretty sure that the jury is back on this one – most safety professionals would agree that the part of your organization that has the most influence on safety is your managers and supervisors, not your line workers. The further up the organization you go, the more influence over the safety of the organization you have. So, if reminding someone about their responsibility regarding safety actually makes a difference in behavior, wouldn’t it make more sense to start putting posters up in the boardroom?

So that’s why we say stop telling people that safety is everyone’s responsibility, because, if you’re like most organizations, you’re only telling the line workers and you’re not reaching the people who matter. Workers often see this as a way to merely pass the buck on safety responsibility. If you really want safety to be everyone’s responsibility in your organization then communicate it with actions, and not just in a way that makes sense to you. There’s a concept in social psychology called reciprocal altruism, which is the idea that we do things for people who do things for us. If this is true then perhaps a better way to communicate the need for employees to take responsibility is to show them than you’re taking responsibility for safety.

Make sure your actions to communicate the importance of safety are done in a way that everyone in the organization understands. Too often we fix the problems that some regulatory agency or some auditor identify and wonder why our employees are appreciative. Your employees don’t really care that much about that stuff. Get out there and fix problems that employees have. And this isn’t just the problems that you think they have. Ask them what’s tough about their jobs and find ways to solve those problems. If you want employee engagement then get out there and engage with your employees.

And for your managers and supervisors, if anyone needs reminding about their responsibility in regards to organizational safety it’s them. What are you doing to remind them of their responsibility? Just like your employees though, don’t just talk to managers and supervisors in a way that makes sense to you. Find out what’s in the way of them engaging in exercising their safety responsibility and do what you can to remove those roadblocks.

What you do will vary from person to person and organization to organization. However, the bottom line is that if you really believe that safety is everyone’s responsibility you shouldn’t have to tell anyone. People will know that it is true by your actions. So how are your showing people that safety is everyone’s responsibility?

1 comment:

  1. In my long safety career I have seen countless examples of what you have described:when an injury occurred more often than not the worker was at fault. Never once have I seen an incident investigation lay the blame at the feet of management,even though it was obvious that that was the case.
    The culture of blame has done more to hinder the overall progress of safety than anything I've seen over the last 20 years and it doesn't show any signs of change. If you think about it,it makes perfect sense: if it's the workers fault I as management don't have to do anything. Maybe develop yet another policy or procedure but nothing that will prevent reoccurrence of an injury.
    The problem with this logic is a simple one in that people are nearly impossible to "fix". The prisons are filled with examples of those failed efforts!


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