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How Approachable Are You When It Comes to Safe Behavior?

February 5, 2016

safety-conversation.jpgHere’s a question for you that can say a lot about your company’s safety culture: 

If one of your company’s top executives (e.g., CEO, VP, GM) walked onto the shop floor or out in the field, and he/she was not wearing required PPE, would employees say something to them?  Would they feel 100% comfortable approaching them and asking them to put on their PPE?

I encourage you to think about that question and ask your co-workers about it. You might be surprised by how people respond to that question. If the answer is “No” or “I think so,” your organization probably has some room for improvement in terms of its safety culture.

These days everyone is talking about safety culture, and how they are trying to improve it, or create a good safety culture. This is rightly so because it really is a critical indicator of risk and employee safety. There are many ways to define what it is, but one of the common and simplest ways to think about a safety culture is: “How we do things around here regarding safety.”  It is hard to pin down, but a safety culture is deeply ingrained in an organization, it is based on shared assumptions, beliefs, and values, and it influences how much risk is present in any aspect of the organization.

We are currently working with a manufacturing facility for one of our client organizations, and in my 1-on-1 conversations with the leadership team, I was told that the average hourly employee at this site would easily tell a co-worker on the shop floor to put on their safety glasses, which are required PPE. However, they told me that many hourly employees would NOT DARE say this to the plant manager. They simply would not feel comfortable doing that because of his position. I have to say, I was somewhat surprised. This was the same site that espoused how important safety was, and how all leaders must be accountable for safety.

But when I shared this with the plant manager, he was not that surprised. Although he was disappointed to hear it, the leadership team had been struggling to communicate to employees that it really is OK to approach others on safe behavior, regardless of who they are in the company. While they were making great strides in terms of putting safety first in daily work tasks, and managing risks more proactively, there was still a gap in terms of what leaders wanted employees to say and what employees actually felt they could say.

Many of you likely work for organizations where this is not an issue. If so, that’s great – congratulations! However, many companies out there still struggle to create a culture where any employee feels 100% confident and comfortable approaching a senior leader on safe behavior. This is a key characteristic of organizations with strong, mature safety cultures, and it is linked to important safety outcomes. If a team member on the shop floor can give feedback on safety behavior to a company VP, then they can likely give feedback to anyone, and that’s how it should be.

So what are some things you can do as a leader to convince employees that it really is OK to speak up and tell anyone that they are working unsafely? Here are a few:

  1. Measure the current state. First, it’s important to identify the starting point. By measuring aspects of the current safety culture, you can get a good sense of how people feel about a certain issue. Safety perception surveys are a great way to measure this type of information from large groups of employees in a consistent and quantifiable manner. Rich, qualitative information can also be gathered very easily through informal talks, one-on-one conversations with employees, or in small focus groups. All of these mediums can be used to systematically ask employees whether they feel comfortable approaching others about safe behaviors.

  1. Communicate on all levels. Once you identify the current state, you need to tell people that it’s ok, and desired, for them to give feedback to anyone on safety. It’s easy to assume that an employee will know something because they heard it in their orientation or their training. But for them to truly know that it’s OK to say something to a senior leader, they need to hear it and see it from leadership directly. Leaders can remind and assure employees during everyday events - such as toolbox talks, safety briefings, walk-throughs and informal conversations - that they should always approach anyone, regardless of their position, when they are working in an at-risk manner.

  1. Be approachable. If you want people to approach you about safety…then you should make sure that you are approachable! Unfortunately, there will always be supervisors who are combative or intimidating. I have often seen this lead to an unwillingness on the part of their employees to voice safety concerns, and this is a shame. If you are unsure about how approachable you are, take actions to get honest feedback on how others see you. 

    Ask trusted others to tell you how they honestly see you in this respect and ask them to share how others perceive you. Measurement tools such as 360-degree feedback surveys can tell a group of leaders a lot about how they are perceived by their co-workers and subordinates.  There are also various personality assessments available that provide valuable information on traits which impact your communication style, leadership approach, and feedback preferences.  By knowing your traits and understanding how others perceive you, you can take simple steps to ensure you are more approachable when it comes to safety concerns and behaviors.

There are many ways in which an organization can develop a safety culture that encourages people to raise safety concerns and approach others candidly, regardless of who they are. These are just three simple steps that can help an organization get started on the path towards this desired state, or to sustain it over time.

6 Tips to Building a Strong Safety Culture

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.