“No person should ever have to be injured, become ill, or die for a paycheck,” says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency which enforces the requirement that workplaces be safe and healthful. OSHA administers the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which focuses on rules, inspection regimes, and penalties for failing to uphold those standards. But often that focus can sidetrack employers from a more fundamental perspective, that is, creating a top-down workplace culture that puts a premium on safety.
No list of safety procedures and standards can fully accomplish a “no accidents” goal without a foundational commitment to the aim of having a “safe and healthful workplace.” How can your business achieve that?
For starters, be sure you’re measuring the right things when you’re putting teeth behind your safety policy. Many employers simply pat themselves on the back and reward managers if no accidents occur within their departments over a specified period of time. But that approach can backfire. For example, it can discourage workers from reporting accidents.
More fundamentally, it doesn’t directly reward activities designed to prevent accidents; it only rewards past results — which could simply be the product of good luck. While rewarding a period of time without accidents might sound good, it fails to recognize that some accidents are inevitable. And it doesn’t necessarily prove whether a safety policy is effective. Accident rates could rise and fall without any adjustment to the underlying policies.
What to Measure
Without abandoning the retrospective look at accidents, you can supplement it with a more forward-looking approach. Specifically, you can incentivize managers and employees to come up with new ideas and procedures designed to improve safety.
Working conditions generally aren’t static, which means that new hazards can arise. Managers and workers who recognize such new safety risks and do something to minimize them in advance, should be encouraged. And they can similarly be rewarded for devising new safety measures in response to accidents that do occur.
Of course while employees will respond to incentives and disincentives, they also are influenced by workplace culture. They pay attention to the priority given to safety by upper level managers. Evidence that safety is a priority for leadership includes the following:
- Adequate resources are allocated for accident prevention,
- Safety processes and improvements are regularly discussed at staff meetings,
- Management is held accountable for accident prevention efforts, and
- Annual assessments are made of the success of existing safety rules and procedures.
When employees feel comfortable communicating among themselves and with supervisors (and vice versa) about workplace-related concerns, they’ll be far more likely to flag safety-related issues. This includes unsafe behavior they have observed among their coworkers.
When criticism is offered and received gracefully with an understanding that problem-solving is the goal, proactive support on workplace safety can flourish. Immediate feedback on employee suggestions, including simple expressions of gratitude, demonstrates to employees that they are being heard. This seems to be true even if ideas are not immediately — or ever — implemented.
In addition, a formal structure to maintain ongoing communication about workplace safety issues can ensure its effectiveness. It could include quarterly or annual feedback to all employees about their accident prevention performance, and a report on the organization’s overall accident and safety track record.
No communication is complete without a safety orientation program for new employees, as well as a safety and health policy document signed by the most senior executive. Typically, such documents include a statement of the company’s commitment to maintaining a safe working environment, and a listing of the roles and responsibilities assigned various managers to uphold the company’s policy.
“Communicating the organization’s commitment to safety is as important as the company’s statement on producing quality products; both statements should be mutually supportive,” according to The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
Along similar lines, making employees part of that process to enhance safety not only signals to them that their opinions are valued, but can also result in better ideas and greater employee buy-in to whatever is ultimately agreed upon.
Here are three opportunities for employee participation:
- Safety and health involvement teams,
- Accident investigations, and
- Safety and health audits.
The same principle applies to safety training. According to OSHA, “When workers have a voice about how training is developed, training programs are more accurately focused on specific workplace hazards.”
Workplace safety consultants can be helpful in ensuring compliance with OSHA regulations that may apply to particular businesses, as well as in emphasizing the need for common sense and for making safety a priority. As the saying goes, “Safety isn’t expensive, it’s priceless.”