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What to Do After a Safety Incident

January 20, 2016

safety-incident.jpgI read a lot of OSHA news briefs to learn more about the common types of workplace safety incidents, and I have recently become interested in locating follow up reports about these organizations to better understand the long-term impact of accidents and injuries beyond that incurred by the employees involved. Not surprisingly, this information tends to be somewhat difficult to find, either kept private in companies’ internal record keeping systems, or in many cases, ignored altogether. When available, it usually appears in investigation reports and newspaper articles because the incident was severe or attracted media attention.

One interesting pattern that I’ve noticed from some of these stories is a shake-up in management structure during the months following a workplace safety incident. In the event of a particularly egregious incident wherein the organization is found to be intentionally negligent, managers may be terminated immediately for their actions, or at least for the company to save face. However, in some situations, we are seeing managers resign or be terminated six months to a year after an incident occurred.

For example, in April 2013 a meat processing plant in Oregon experienced an accidental employee death when a worker fell into a blender while cleaning it. The subsequent investigation revealed that the worker was not properly supervised while performing this task, and OSHA cited the plant for amputation risks related to lockout/tagout procedures and other violations around the work site. Although no further punishments were handed down at the time, a follow-up story in that December reported that three plant managers were later fired when productivity declined and safety conditions were not adequately improved upon following the death.

I should note here that a variety of circumstances can lead to an employee’s exit from the organization, but this observed association warrants consideration of the potential human factors involved. As we know from the L.E.A.D. model of SafetyDNA, effective safety leadership requires both proactive efforts to avoid safety incidents and techniques to reduce risks and resolve problems when an incident does occur. Therefore, I suggest that these delayed changes in management personnel may come at least in part due to due a loss in employee trust for their supervisors.

An employee injury can highlight management’s deficiencies in maintaining employee safety and cause other workers to question whether safety is prioritized in the organization, especially when employees have raised concerns in the past that were not fully addressed. This sudden loss of credibility due to the perceived lack of care for employee well-being from the organization can lead to reduced job satisfaction, job performance, and safety performance, ultimately falling back on management. Once managers have lost the trust of their subordinates, it is quite difficult, though not impossible, to regain, and safety conditions may continue to decline without some sort of intervention, which may account for the voluntary or involuntary exit of some managers following an incident.

As managers and safety leaders, you do your best to garner employee loyalty through your preventative safety policies and procedures, but sometimes accidents happen and you must be prepared to overcome the backlash from an incident. Should one occur, it is critical that you quickly and clearly communicate to your staff how you will respond to improve safety conditions to demonstrate that you are taking their personal safety seriously. Then follow the leadership effectiveness factors of SafetyDNA to guide your actions in rebuilding trust and relationships with employees. Specifically:

  • Taking responsibility for the event demonstrates your credibility as a leader

  • Confidently laying out a strong vision for how you will improve safety will increase employee buy-in

  • Showing your adaptability and openness to change shows employees that you are ready to move forward in a positive direction and increases their confidence in your vision

Safety incidents can severely damage an organization’s safety climate and the relationships between employees and management. Therefore, your best approach to being an effective safety leader is to preemptively be an example for your employees of low-risk safety behaviors and design your safety programs to reduce hazards.

The perception that you prioritize safety at work can go a long way when an incident does occur, and will minimize the potential pitfalls for employees and after effects that can negatively impact future performance and consequently managers’ employment statuses. That said, even if you have not demonstrated effective safety leadership to your employees prior to an incident, it is never too late to start fresh. Simply stating in a meeting or memo that you acknowledge your mistakes leading up to the incident and being clear that there will be changes made from now on can show employees that you are serious about improving their safety conditions and guide the organization to a new era of safety performance.

Four Behaviors of Safe Leaders - The L.E.A.D. Model

Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.