Thinking Outside of the Box: Hiring for Safety

Hiring for Safety in a Difficult Labor Climate: Thinking Outside of the Box

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Over the last few years, we’ve been hearing over and over how hard it is to find high-quality employees for physically taxing jobs. In some cases, it’s difficult for employers to substantially raise wages and stay competitive. This leaves them in a position where candidate pools have shrunk and, in many cases, people applying for jobs have little hands-on experience. “We’re hiring people who don’t know how to use a shovel.”

This creates insufficient personnel and the people that you do have are often stretched thin, which leads to a host of complications that compromise safety like excessive time pressure, increased stress, higher levels of fatigue, lowered morale, and more safety shortcuts.

Hiring for Safety

So how do you achieve safety excellence when you can’t get enough people in the first place, the ones that you do have are too green, and some of your best performers may retire or leave for more money?

Leaders need to start thinking outside of the box to succeed for safety in this difficult labor market. Bringing in skilled and self-motivated employees on the front end reduces safety, production, and morale issues on the back end. Here are some tips that may help:

  1. Establish job profiles as part of interviews to assess safety attitudes, beliefs, and values for their own safety and the safety of others before they are hired. This includes questions about taking personal ownership of safety, speaking up with coworkers when risky issues occur, risk tolerance for different situations, escalating safety issues to supervisors when needed, etc. Asking prospective employees how they would handle various scenarios gives you a clue about how they view and internalize safety.  
  2. Develop and position a career path for employees for future upward mobility. Emphasizing this before, during, and after hiring helps provide entry-level employees with an alternate way to view their current “job.” Providing developmental opportunities and temporary upgrade roles (e.g., supervision) helps reinforce future career possibilities.
  3. Conduct realistic job previews prior to hiring employees. This includes having prospective candidates do site tours and interact with field employees. This will eliminate wasted time when potential candidates simply aren’t a fit for the job.
  4. Design work to create more flexibility. This includes job rotations, trading shifts, and more flexible schedules. Some employees may want very early starts and others may prefer starting and staying later. This flexibility creates more work for supervisors but will pay off if workers are more satisfied with their work schedules.
  5. Allow workers to provide input in their work functions. This depends largely on the type of job but providing autonomy, when possible, is beneficial. For example, fleet services companies may allow drivers to have more input with route planning for their given runs.
  6. Increase the focus on a broader work purpose and meaning for various jobs. Patching holes on the road should be positioned to allow families to get where they’re going more safely. Water treatment employees help ensure that community drinking water is safe for everyone.
  7. Improve hiring and onboarding to be more conversational and less reliant on reading a lengthy booklet and signing. This allows employers to convey company norms for safety, address any questions or concerns from candidates, and demonstrate active caring for people.
  8. Treat people right once they’re hired. There should be ongoing support, mentoring, and development from field leaders (and above) to show caring and appreciation for new employees. Creating an environment where people are happy and comfortable makes it more likely that they’ll stick around. Here are some quick reminders once people are hired to keep them around:
  • Avoid “blame the employee” with incident analysis. Focus on fixing the system.
  • Get more field employment with safety decisions, including rule changes.
  • Don’t let production pressure trump safety.
  • Respond quickly and effectively to employees’ safety concerns.
  • Spend more time 1:1 with employees.

No matter how you slice it, it’s a tough labor market right now.

Fewer people are looking for physical work and many new applicants have spent more time with iPhones than shovels. That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. Try some of the steps above to help you hire new employees who are conscientious and safety-minded. It may also help you retain solid, current employees who’ll want to stick around for the long haul. 


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