Operations and Non-Serious Injuries

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By Eric Johnson

One of the biggest elements of a good safety program is the ability of employees to feel free to both own their safety to protect themselves from hazards and to then report safety incidents, close calls, as they happen within the workplace. Within groups that exhibit private compliance and higher maturities, the workforce feels comfortable and duty-oriented to enforce safety. But as we all know, safety is a journey, not a destination, and elements of a safety culture can quickly erode if not deliberately maintained.
The canary in the coal mine for a decline in safety culture is the lack of willingness to report close calls and/or non-serious injuries

One of the first areas that can slide are the reporting of close calls and non-serious injuries. This manifest itself through several ways:

1. Prioritization of “getting the job done” over safety
2. Observed experiences of others
3. An appearance of “toughness”

We often talk about what organizations can do to improve their safety culture. But what about backsliding? What happens when the organization has made achievements in their safety culture and is either worried about slipping back into bad habits or individuals have actually witnessed activities that would be considered in a maturity level below their current one? How does this “slippage” become visible and what can be done to counteract it?

The starting point for “backsliding” as we can call it, often manifests itself in productivity pressures. The pressure to get work done always presents the opportunity to skip safety steps or to take risks that otherwise would not be taken with adequate time. Additionally, there are other areas where safety backsliding can take place – new projects, difficulties in other areas of the business, employee dissatisfactions due to hr related issues – all of these can lend themselves to a reduced level of safety consideration on the job.

But what can be done about it? For starters, safety culture leadership starts at the top. Employees are incentivized to do what leaders instruct, but also must interpret non-verbal cues, information from others, etc., to determine what leaders are looking for. If they interpret that getting the job done is more important that safety, they will act accordingly. Furthermore, if they observe that others have had negative experiences when they have spoken up, they will interpret that as what will happen to them as well. When leaders see or feel as if this is happening and they wish to build or at least preserve the safety culture, they need to take the time to communicate very deliberately. First and foremost, examples of slowing/stopping work when safety issues present themselves must be explicitly mentioned. Next, subordinates must be able to have both informal and formal conversations that relay the same messaging. When messaging conflicts, employees will pick the one that is most aligned with what they think management desires.

The last issue is more a social one than one directly impacted by management. When employees are around others, they pick up on social cues that resonate with the group at large. If the group is very deliberate about safety, then new employees will act accordingly. If the group as a whole has experienced safety incidents that have not resulted in change, then individual decision-making will reflect that. Leaders should watch for instances when “toughness” is respected more than safety – i.e. “sucking up” an injury or working through pain. It is here where leaders should be very sensitive to working group cultures to be able to identify when the “toughness” mentality surfaces in order to keep hard work aligned with a beneficial safety culture.

The above items are small but impactful recommendations for leaders to keep their safety culture at the forefront of their business. While a true safety assessment will be much more adept at sourcing these issues, leader observations are critical to managing the safety culture under their watch.