Building a Culture of Workplace Safety

Building a Culture of Workplace Safety (By Theresa Dowsett, Consultant/Trainer)

What does it take to get everyone on board and to work toward making the workplace safe? Putting it another way, WHY do employees refuse to keep their safety glasses on the way they should?

As a consultant, I am always amazed, but never surprised, when I tour a manufacturing facility or construction work site and see workers not wearing safety glasses. The manager who is showing me around awkwardly reminds the worker that he or she needs her safety glasses, and the worker obediently put them on. However, almost always, when we are safely out of visual range, the worker removes the glasses and begins to work again.

They know it is unsafe. They know accidents can happen. So why don’t they wear their safety equipment? Worse, why do some staff still remove safety guards from machines? What about when they enter into horseplay that can create terribly unsafe work conditions?

Strict enforcement is one reason. Managers often find it uncomfortable to discipline over something as small as not wearing safety glasses. The act just does not seem to merit a written warning. So managers keep reminding staff during their walk-around, and staff keep doing what they always do. SOME staff, that is: because not everyone ignores safety rules. Most staff are good at following the rules; it seems always to be a core number of the same people who just do not consider safety relevant.

How can managers reach those employees? Here are a few thoughts on how to develop a culture of safety at work:

  • Enforce the rules. Things that get measured get done. If managers allow frequent offenders to continue with unsafe work habits (i.e. removing guards or not wearing safety glasses), what does that say about how seriously the manager him or herself take?
  • Be a role model. If the manager does not wear safety glasses, hard hats, or hair nets, how can they expect their staff to follow the rules. Supervisors seem to follow the rules, but their managers sometimes feel exempt. Managers may need to enter a restricted area to ask a “quick” question, and to put on safety shoes, goggles, it may seem, well, unnecessary. At one food facility, staff had to wear hair nets for their protection and for quality assurance reasons. Senior managers would come for the occasional tour of the plant, however, rather than wearing hair nets, they insisted on baseball caps. Hmmm…. What message were they sending there?
  • Safety takes consistent and persistent effort. Regular safety talks that emphasize not only the hazard, but also the reason for the safety rule, must be held. Companies can prepare a database of talks that they can plan out a year in advance. Daily scrums can be communication techniques to keep safety fresh in everyone’s minds. Some supervisors believe safety talks are because they feel like they are telling their crew something that they already know. They feel like what they say falls on deaf (or bored) ears. If done right, safety talks can keep safety top-of-mind; and isn’t this the ultimate goal?
  • Including health and safety on performance appraisals, and rewarding those with good safety records and not rewarding those with poor records, is essential. Paying a bonus to workers who hold exemplary safety records encourages more of the same sort of behaviour.
  • The Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) can be active advocates for safety. Get them involved in doing safety rounds on a daily basis, not just for the once-a-month or quarterly audit. Committee members are there to help and Worker reps know what happens on shop floors, and they have the best inside scoop on what it will take to improve safety records.

In today’s work environment, health and safety should be easier, not harder. Some companies seem to have trouble navigating troubling safety waters. I hear supervisors complain that they “tell them over and over” to do something right. I hear managers complain “they (shop floor workers) refuse to follow the rules.” Accountants state “the safety fines are killing us, if only the staff would stop causing accidents.”

What this tells me is that there is a divide between management and workers in regards to safety. Managers see themselves as the ones who make the rules, and workers as those who follow the rules. Workers, on the other hand, see management as out of touch with practicality and believe “it” (i.e. a serious injury) will never happen to them. Until management and its workforce come together in a shared and cohesive safety philosophy, building a true culture of safety will be unobtainable.

If your company is having a difficult time getting its managers, supervisors, and workers to commit fully to safety, and if you are finding yourself buried in fines and accident costs, it might be time to call in outside help. We have training programs for all levels of the organization. We coach supervisors and workers to recognize and address safety culture issues. We also conduct audits, employee safety surveys, and offer consultation regarding your safety program and documentation. Give us a call to see if we can help reduce costs associated with a diminished or poor safety focus.