Developing a culture of safety awareness that is focused on decreasing workplace injuries will reduce medical costs and worker compensation claims. Other side affects include: evading legal responsibility for negligence, increasing morale and productivity, as well as curtailing truancies. Sounds completely positive to me! Any HR professional would agree that a serious focus on safety is the right direction to head. So why aren’t most companies in a hurry to develop such a culture? Well, because it’s hard and you won’t see things change immediately.
Training employees to be safety conscious does not happen overnight, or even in a quarter. It’s a process that is built over the long term (start thinking in terms of ‘years’). It requires helping employees to keep safety on their minds at all times—which in turn requires continuous reinforcement and recognition of basic human psychology.
Safety has to be put into practice and not just talked about. The most effective way to communicate the significance of safety from management to employees is by swiftly responding once a safety issue arises. By doing nothing, or by being slow to respond, sends the message that “this whole safety initiative is not really as big of a deal as management says it is.”
Organizations learn very well from significant accidents. Of course when something significantly wrong happens, a task force is assigned and they get all over it. The mess gets cleaned up and everyone goes back to doing their normal jobs. But what about when the mishap is something small? Maybe something that could be swept under the rug and hidden? Well, organizations aren’t so good at learning from those mistakes, much less acknowledging them.
If the objective is to create a culture of safety awareness, then even the smallest accidents need to be addressed formally. Managers should be asking employees: How could this have been prevented? How should we handle this differently so it does not happen again?
A great way to increase safety and awareness of it is by collecting data (we’ve all seen the sign: “Insert number here” Days Without an Accident). In order to create a safe workplace there needs to be rewards for reporting. If there’s an incentive to report, you’re going to get a lot of input. This will make things seem like they’re getting worse, but they’re not…you’re just starting to learn about it. The positive side of providing rewards for reporting is that employees start to become engaged in the culture of safety awareness.
The essential idea in cultivating a culture of safety awareness in the workplace involves consistency and dedication to true change. If management really cares about safety, then when someone reports a problem, they pay attention, offer feedback and publicize it throughout the workplace.
Paul Hill, Ph.D.
I design, plan, and evaluate economic development programs for Utah State University.
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