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Dodging Bullets: Three Things to Avoid When Improving Your Safety Culture

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Improving safety culture requires time, effort, persistence and intelligence. Leaders often do a tremendous job of instilling safety values with employees despite organizational headwinds like production pressure, under staffing, insufficient funding for safety improvements, and poorly conceived incentives. However, leaders sometimes make mistakes in their efforts to improve safety culture and performance. A few examples and lessons learned are provided below as cautionary tales to avoid.

1. Busy leaders sometimes fail to walk the talk for safety which sets the tone for the rest of the organization. Ideally, leaders set the right examples by role modeling positive safety behaviors, spending time out in the field with employees, providing respectful safety coaching, and demonstrating integrity and commitment to safety. As a good example, one plant manager created “30 minutes with Bob” meetings with all employees to create an open-door policy with all employees. This was appreciated for safety but also as a gesture of active caring.

By contrast, in one Brooklyn company, the safety department fought for months to get employees to accept stricter requirements with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety glasses, shoes, hearing protecting etc. Unfortunately, their efforts were undermined by a television interview in which the company CEO answered a reporter’s questions (about company profits) on the shop floor, during operations, without any PPE. Many employees saw the interview on the news and decided they too no longer needed to use their PPE.

2. Leaders don’t always promote peer-to-peer safety feedback with employees. Supervisors are not always around to provide corrective safety feedback to employees. So, it is critical that leaders create an environment where employees feel comfortable warning each other if risky actions are observed. When this doesn’t happen, serious incidents are more likely to occur.

For instance, an employee at a soft drink facility developed the habit of scraping off excess glue on sharp blades (that cut labels) by jabbing at the clumps of glue with a rag. This normally worked to remove the glue and kept the line moving. Otherwise, he’d have to spend several minutes shutting down the line and locking out the equipment in order to clean the blade properly (i.e., it’s not moving). This method worked for years until one day when his hand got dragged into the equipment and the blade cut off two of his fingers. This would have been prevented if one of his coworkers had felt comfortable enough to speak up and warn him about the risky behavior. Leaders need to provide regular one-on-one safety feedback with others and encourage/reinforce employees to do the same with each other.

3. Leaders need to improve hiring practices. In certain industries, leaders often struggle to find qualified candidates with required technical knowledge. In other cases, the organization simply has substandard hiring practices. In leaders we’ve talked to, some point out their selection practices are limited to brief interviews and a cursory resume examination. Others have told us their companies simply hire “warm bodies” or anyone who can pass a drug test. Hiring the wrong people on the front end leads to a host of problems on the back end.

Organizations with elite employees normally offer competitive salaries and often use an array of selection tools, including cognitive (intelligence) tests, personality tests, biodata instruments, assessment center exercises, vocation tests (when appropriate) and/or structured interviews (Cascio, 1998; Spector, 1996). Brief surveys assessing safety beliefs and values can also be used to supplement selection processes.

Summary

Leaders are inundated with demands on their time and energy. Sometimes mistakes happen which derail months and years of positive safety efforts. Three primary slip-ups to avoid include not walking the talk, failing to promote coworker safety feedback, and using substandard hiring practices. Avoiding these mistakes helps keep you on track to improving your safety culture.

At Propulo, we coach leaders to focus on prosocial safety behaviors and avoid pitfalls that derail safety efforts. We can help your leaders stay on track and make step change improvements in your safety performance. For more information on this topic, read about Safety & Safety Culture at Propulo Consulting.

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