Top Ten Ways to Improve Safety Leadership: A View from Employees
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
We have spent years working with organizations to improve safety leadership. This includes extensive coaching, training, and safety culture assessments. During assessments, we spend many hours with employees at all organizational levels getting safety feedback via interviews, focus groups, walkarounds, surveys, and other sources. We’ve also done front-line safety culture training for two decades. During this time, we’ve heard many recurring themes from employees about how to improve safety leadership. Here is a Top 10 list of recommendations for improvement from the perspective of front-line employees.
1. Don’t Blame People When They Get Hurt
Some management groups use root-cause analyses to determine the source of injuries. Clearly there is not a single cause when an employee gets hurt. Safety-related shortcuts lead to most injuries but these risky actions are almost always influenced by system factors like excessive production pressure, unavailable tools/equipment, insufficient manpower, ineffective training, and confusing/incomplete procedures.1 As Dekker points out, “Underneath every simple, obvious story about ‘human error,’ there is a deeper, more complex story about the organization.”2
In our Human Performance (HP) training, we continually emphasize that system factors need to be assessed and improved when employees are injured. Historically, employees are too often blamed following injuries.3 As Deming reminded us decades ago, “Don’t blame people for problems created by the system.”4
The first question when someone gets injured should be ‘where did the system fail?’
Unfortunately, employees often feel blamed following injuries. Also, employees sometimes believe management overreacts to minor injuries. One individual in Tennessee complained about the amount of paperwork he had to complete after being bitten by a spider while working outside. Employees may not report minor injuries because they don’t want to deal with the hassles, paperwork, and embarrassment that may follow.
2. Solicit Employee Input when Determining and Updating Safety Rules
During training sessions, employees recognize the importance of establishing and following safety rules to prevent injuries and fatalities. However, many express concerns about knee-jerk reactions and blanket safety policies following injuries that don’t always make sense or apply to their jobs. Most new policies are warranted and can be lifesaving. However, they can also be frivolous and non-applicable in certain situations. As an example, one plant manager outlawed baseball caps after finding out an employee who suffered a head injury said he thought the cap he was wearing was his hardhat. The next morning employees expressed their displeasure by showing up to work with football helmets, cowboy hats, and one even had an authentic Mexican sombrero on his head (but no baseball cap).
In another example, a steel-mill manager decided to fire any employee caught not locking out/tagging out power on a particular piece of equipment. Employees had been bypassing this, in part, to save time in an environment that had extremely high production pressure. Thus, the manager’s approach was understandable given the severity of this infraction. However, the safety director intervened and they came up with a different approach. He met with select employees, supervisors and engineers and they redesigned the process to de-energize the equipment in half the steps and in half the time. This eliminated the problem. What appeared to be an enforcement issue was really a “solicit input from your people” issue.
Obtaining input from employees regarding safety policies leads to more practical rules that employees are more likely to follow and supervisors feel more comfortable supporting. Also, the rationale for new policies or rule changes should be shared immediately with employees. They may not always like the changes, but they’ll appreciate the effort to let them know why the changes were made.
3. Don’t Let Production Pressure Trump Safety
Companies clearly need to be productive and profitable. If an organization fails to remain competitive and viable, there is no ‘company safety’ mission. Safety should be embedded in all work practices. However, employees often report that safety is sometimes compromised by production schedules, overtime, and staffing. Bottom line: Excessive production pressure may contribute to bad morale, at-risk safety shortcuts, and corresponding injuries/fatalities. Organization leaders need to effectively and routinely balance safety and production demands.
4. Increase One-On-One Feedback between Managers and Employees
Employees want managers to understand the safety issues they’re dealing with; and managers, in turn, want to know what they can do to help employees remain safe. Employees generally believe management is trying to improve safety, but many report they’re detached from daily operations and may not fully understand the safety issues they’re dealing with.
Managers should spend more time talking one-on-one with employees about safety issues.
This develops relationships and builds trust. It also increases managers’ empathy regarding challenging safety issues employees deal with and helps employees understand the daily challenges of managers. It also allows leaders to provide recognition for safe work practices observed which, for most organizations, is greatly underutilized. Increasing supportive feedback for safe work practices increases their occurrence in the future and creates a more positive safety culture.
5. Respond Effectively to Employee Concerns and Suggestions
Employees should be encouraged to provide safety suggestions both verbally and through safety suggestion forms. Employees feel safer, and valued, when these issues are addressed in a timely and effective manner. To do this, leaders need to effectively address issues and advertise improvements. There should be a marketing campaign to regularly showcase all system and process improvements based on employee feedback.
This is good for safety AND morale as employees understand leaders care about addressing their concerns. Managers should also let people know when issues can’t be immediately fixed and communicate what will be done in the short-term to mitigate any hazards until full-time corrections can be accomplished.
6. Fix Safety Management Systems
The first step in creating an ideal safety culture is ensuring safety management systems are consistent with management’s good intentions for safety. Here are some key system improvement recommendations obtained from our assessment tools and employee comments:
- Increase employee engagement with safety audits, rules, suggestions, incidents, training and behavior-based rewards.
- Improve follow-up communication from safety audits. Solicit and respond to employee suggestions as soon as possible.
- Ensure relevant safety meetings are conducted in all areas/locations.
- Assess system factors more thoroughly following incidents.
- Encourage more close-call and minor-injury reporting.
- Solicit employee input when establishing rules or when rule changes are needed. Ensure safety rules are consistently enforced.
- Provide more recognition for employees who consistently demonstrate safe work practices and participate in safety-improvement efforts.
When safety systems are optimized, the relationships between managers and employees are healthier, employee work more safely, safety initiatives are more successful, and fewer employees get hurt or killed on the job.
7. Improve Management Communication for Safety
Managers should effectively share information about safety rules (and changes), incident analyses, close calls, safety suggestions, audits/inspections, and ongoing safety initiatives. Keeping employees informed of important safety issues not only improves employees’ safety but it helps them buy-in and feel appreciated by management. Although leaders are typically good about reinforcing the importance of safety, they may not be as effective sharing key information about leading indicators and process metrics.
8. Improve Interpersonal Communication for Safety
Employees should regularly demonstrate actively caring for coworkers through both supportive and corrective safety-related feedback.6 This feedback should be ongoing and always respectful. In companies where peer safety-related feedback is not the norm, employees often adopt the perspective, “it’s not my job” to give feedback or “people need to mind their own business.”
Tips for improving interpersonal safety-related communication include asking permission first before giving behavioral feedback, taking time to understand the context of the situation before offering suggestions, stating opinions as opinions instead of facts, asking questions to facilitate discussions, and acknowledging people’s experience and skill.6 Overall, safety-related feedback should be open-ended and empathic. This type of feedback has a greater likelihood of influencing attitudes and behaviors.7
9. Hire More People and Pay Them More
Employees are increasingly saying managers in their companies don’t hire enough people for the job and they fail to backfill positions when people retire. Insufficient personnel often leads to frustration, irritation, and may encourage safety-related shortcuts when there are too few people to do the job safely (e.g., “This is a five-person job and there’s only two of us to do it.”). This is especially pronounced when production pressure is amped up or when organizational units fall behind schedule.8
Hiring the right people matters too. One employee recently said his company’s hiring policy consists of simply “finding a warm body who can pass the drug test.” Hiring skilled and self-motivated employees on the front end reduces safety, production, and morale issues on the back end. In some cases where wages are low, talented new workers learn the relevant skills they need for the job and then leave the company to be compensated more appropriately elsewhere.
10. Improve Personal and Coworker Support for Safety
Most of the issues covered in this article involve safety improvement recommendations employees have provided for management. However, employees also recognize their own attitudes and behaviors determine organizational safety. This includes following safety rules, providing safety suggestions, cautioning others when needed, reporting close calls (and minor injuries), and being open-minded to organizational safety initiatives and improvement efforts.
Employees also want coworkers to do the right things for safety. During onsite training exercises, employees often report they want coworkers to follow rules, take pride in their jobs, maintain good housekeeping, set good examples for new employees, and take personal responsibility for safety. They’d also like to see a reduction in complaining, negativity/hostility, rushing, complacency, safety-related shortcuts and “looking the other way” when risks are noticed. In general, employees recognize their own attitudes and behaviors, and those of their coworkers, are critical to improving their safety culture.
Call to Action
It’s smart business for managers to communicate with employees, acknowledge their experience and expertise, and make safety improvements based on their suggestions. These 10 tips represent some of the most common suggestions from employees. Follow these ten guidelines to improve safety leadership and performance. Happier employees will be an added bonus.
3Conklin, T (2011). Human performance for safety leadership. Presentation at Safety Performance Solutions’ Users’ Conference. Roanoke, VA.
4Geller, E. S. (2016). Making a difference with applied behavioral science: Actively caring for people. Presentation at Safety Performance Solutions’ Users’ Conference. Roanoke, VA.
5Williams, J. H.,& Geller, E. S. (2016). Actively Caring for Occupational Safety. In E. S. Geller (Ed.) Applied psychology: Actively caring for people (pp. 301-338). New York: Cambridge University Press.
6Williams, J. (2006). Improving safety communication skills: Becoming an empathic communicator. Proceedings on compact disk for the American Society of Safety Engineers Conference, Seattle, WA.
7Geller, E. S. (2018). The communication dynamic for occupational safety: Interacting effectively for injury prevention.