Safety at the Front-Line


By Eric Johnson

“Why can’t my employees just work safer?” is a question we hear again and again when interacting with senior-level and mid-level leadership. “Management simply doesn’t know what we are dealing with” rebuts front-line employees. And indeed, both are partially correct. It’s this middle ground where an established safety culture can take root.

Safety focus is not independent of other aspects of the organization, but can enhance or detract the work experience depending on the engagement of the front-line – an engagement that can be supported by management
But to get to this point, management must be fully aware of how the front-line views safety and in what context:
1. Safety vs. Timely execution
2. Competing Priorities
3. Past experiences and observations of others’ experiences

The three elements above are inter-related. For example, a manager is under a time crunch to get an project completed in a certain amount of time. He is under that time crunch because another competing project has utilized some of his resources or project expertise and in order to stay under budget has had to reduce the level of overtime. However, to meet his year end goals, he realizes that he will need the overtime work he initially reduced, so he requires his employees to work overtime during holidays when employees expected to be with family. Employees become unhappy and coupled with inadequate tools/resources/experience, begin to have workplace accidents and other mishaps. Those employees that do report these issues are sidelined and marginalized. Some leave. Others keep quiet, trying to work within difficult circumstances. The work may ultimately get done – leading to a false sense of security until the next emergency.

Juxtapose this with the manager who has emphasized safety be a part of all work planning. She is present in the details and works with her subordinates when safety issues are revealed. When revealed, she asks why and takes junior employees thoughts and accounts into decision making. Employees see how other employees are treated with respect and cooperation when issues are brought to the forefront, which inspires others to do the same. Without the stress of fear of losing a job or of reduced status, employees are free to not only bring issues to attention, but to also provide solutions.

The biggest issue facing front-line employees is the mitigation of risk; if I do “X” activity, which is quicker than “Y” approach, since I know what I’m doing, I’ll be fine. It is this attitude that has repercussions in injury. No one plans to get injured; people are injured when they don’t plan. And people don’t plan when they have an incentive not to plan or feel as if they will be unaffected by negative consequences.

Is there a 100% chance that optimal planning situations will occur? Of course not. But the entire premise behind an optimal safety culture is that people have the ability to *stop* work when issues arise and take best practice corrective action without fear of doing so.