The most effective people managing safety and health in industry know that a safety program is much more than writing rules and training employees to follow them. Although terms like “leadership ability” and “people skills” are overused to the point of sounding meaningless (especially on resumes!), success or failure in business often hinges on dealing with human personalities effectively. This applies to safety and health matters. The following is offered as an introduction to 10 good habits that can make you more effective.
1. Praise employees when they choose safe behaviors.
These are the acts you should encourage. Try to be specific as to the good behavior you are praising, and sincere and timely in your praise. Obviously, fair and equitable enforcement of company rules should not be overlooked or discontinued, for a lot of sound reasons. However, studies indicate that positive reinforcement of good behaviors is often more effective than punishment of bad behaviors in directing the future behavior of employees.
The trick is to encourage enough safe acts when you observe them, so that when it is appropriate to discipline an employee for a safety violation, it will not outweigh the positive benefits of praising the safe acts. This motivation effort is a basic part of the behavior modification which can help employees see safety as a core value.
2. Solicit participation from employees.
Listen when people offer suggestions, concerns or complaints. Their suggestions might be better than your ideas, so give them a chance. Don’t immediately write off their comments just because they come from ordinary employees, even if they are not soundly based on current safety industry practice.
Pay particular attention to employee complaints and respond quickly and appropriately to all of them. Most people get frustrated when they feel someone isn’t paying attention to them. You may find that they will keep looking until they find someone who wants to listen to them, such as someone from OSHA. Time spent developing listening skills will be well worth the investment.
Although sometimes employees are wrong about something that concerns them, when they are ready to express a concern or complaint, be ready to listen. Later, after you’ve had a chance to evaluate the issue, you can talk to the employee and explain why no action needs to be taken.
3. Reward employee participation.
Production employees will often feel very proud of their efforts to contribute to resolving safety and health issues, either on the work floor or in safety meetings. It’s usually not part of their job description or field of expertise, but they feel they are helping their fellow workers, perhaps possibly saving someone from disability or death, when they participate in safety and health matters. If these employees feel that this participation is unnoticed or unappreciated by management, their enthusiasm turns to cynicism. Make sure that you encourage them by recognizing their value to employee safety and health and by letting them know you appreciate their help.
4. Be a shining example.
People learn more by watching management than they would ever care to admit. Always follow every rule and procedure religiously if you want others to do so. You can bet that your behaviors and actions are being observed much of the time, whether you notice it or not, so don’t excuse yourself from complying with rules, such as wearing hearing protection, even if you know you won’t be in a department long enough to exceed the TWA for noise. You should keep a supply of earplugs, regular and visitors’ safety glasses, and any other personal protective equipment which is required in the facility for yourself and any visitors that might accompany you into the plant.
5. Invest in people.
It could be something seemingly minor, such as lending a home safety training video to an employee to take home or bringing in jugs of “sports drinks” for employees working on a particularly hot day. Your investment will build your reputation among the employees far more effectively and positively than anything else you can do.
A resourceful safety director reacted to an employee complaint about a harness sticking to sweaty shoulders on a hot day. First, he discussed several possible solutions. Then, he made an investment in the employee by personally sewing terry cloth covers that wrapped around the shoulder straps and attached with “hook and loop” fasteners. The employee could hardly believe that a member of management had taken such a personal interest in an employee’s comfort. The gratitude of the employee was worth every minute spent at the sewing machine.
6. Continuously improve and simplify plant safety.
Remove hazards where possible, rather than protect employees from them. Although your more experienced people may not have any problems with a given condition, new employees tend to have more accidents. Eliminating hazards makes it easier for new people to stay safe. This might seem obvious, but it is not routinely exercised in every company.
For example, a company bought a corrosive liquid for use in a process. It was purchased and stored in a central location, transferred to smaller containers and distributed as needed to various subsidiary plants, where it was diluted substantially and neutralized.
The safety director knew that the required goggles, aprons, gloves, etc. were not always used at all locations. Furthermore, he had to try to ensure that OSHA-required MSDS and PPE training were always up to date for these subsidiaries. Although no injuries had occurred to the senior people who handled the liquid, the safety director worried that a new and inexperienced employee might eventually be asked to do this job and be injured.
Rather than simply try to protect the employees who were handling the corrosive material at the subsidiaries, the safety director decided to dilute and neutralize the liquid to a safe pH at the central location. Thus, no goggles, face shields, gloves or aprons were necessary except at the central location. Now, a project is underway to purchase the material with the neutralizer already added, to eliminate the hazard completely.
7. Visit plant areas regularly.
Surprisingly, some safety managers walk through production areas only once a week or less. This can inhibit communication and cooperation by reminding employees of the management status of the safety manager. Make a walkthrough of at least one plant area per day to let employees see that you are there for them and allow them to offer their comments and suggestions to you. Most production employees would rather talk in person than call you by telephone, so being there establishes a line of communication. This simple habit may give you opportunities to catch problems before they become too serious.
8. Maintain openness.
Make sure to tell employees as much as you can about what you are doing when you monitor, test alarms, bring visitors through, change safety equipment or procedures, etc. The production area is like a home to production workers, and they often have great interest in what happens in it. Give them as much information as you can when you are conducting safety and health business in their work areas.
Real-life examples of a lack of openness show how expensive it is to hide facts, even unintentionally. In an auto assembly plant, an employee noticed an unusual odor near the end of the assembly line and complained to a union safety representative. The complaint went to management, who sent an industrial hygienist out to take pull-tube samples. The hygienist found that the brand of gasoline going into the cars had been changed and so had the slight odor generated when filling the cars. The air was fine.
Finding no real problem, the hygienist went back to her office without saying anything to anyone on the line. Seeing someone taking samples agitated the employees, who eventually called the local OSHA office and filed a complaint. They were sure that management was hiding some kind of dangerous chemical leak from them and had kept them working in possibly hazardous conditions. The reasons for their fears? The hygienist didn’t let them in on the sampling results and the employees’ imagination filled in the resulting blanks. By the end of the day, over 100 employees had gone to the clinic with an array of imagined “symptoms.”
In another case, employees assumed that visitors from an insurance carrier were OSHA inspectors. When the visitors came and went without a word to the employees, they decided “OSHA” had been “paid off.” As unlikely as it is that someone from OSHA could be paid off, the employees hung onto the rumor for years.
9. Learn the names of as many production employees as possible.
Almost everyone likes being recognized by name. It helps bring down communication barriers. This results in benefits to your safety program. I’ve seen that the best safety professionals in industry can walk through a plant and personally greet everyone on the floor by name. Although some of us are not good with names, you do get credit for trying.
Eat lunch regularly with the production workers. In one workplace, an invisible class barrier had always existed between “management” and production people. Production workers were not included in day-to-day running of the firm, mainly due to the owner, who wanted to be involved in everything and delegated no authority. The safety committee included only management personnel who answered directly to the owner.
While unable to convince the owner of the company to stop micromanaging, the safety director started to bring his lunch so he could eat with the plant employees regularly. Each lunchtime session was an informal safety mini-meeting, and most were substantially more productive than the “official” safety meetings.
10. Try to learn something new AT LEAST ONCE PER day.
Safety and health professionals who have professional certifications must acquire continuing education units to maintain their certifications. There is a good reason for this requirement. It helps keep these professionals current about safety and health issues. You can do the same thing, often at little cost.
For example, read an article in a safety and health publication, whether you think the topic relates to you or not. Free seminars from your workers’ compensation carrier may be available. Call an OSHA office and ask questions (make sure you have a genuine OSHA inspector on the line first). Meeting and networking with peers is also constructive.
Develop your resources. An effective safety person would do well to have contacts within the ranks of production employees and management, at other companies, at the local OSHA office, at the workers’ compensation carrier’s loss control department, at trade organizations and at safety equipment supply houses.
Practice these 10 habits routinely, and you will see the benefits develop over time.
Carl Vasquez, CSP, ASP, TSSP, is Director-Safety, Education & Training, for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA).