As a safety consultant with more than twenty years of experience, I have evaluated the safety programs and safety cultures of many companies.

It's easy to see which companies instill safety as a core value and which do not. The most successful companies have safety as a core value by promoting an incident-free work environment. An incident-free work environment is a corporate mind-set that no incident is acceptable and safety is not optional. Such companies make safety a personal issue rather than a corporate issue, and safety becomes a way of life for its employees, both on and off the job.

Companies that operate safely over the long term and develop effective safety cultures understand the psychology of why employees behave a certain way and, more importantly, how to get employees to actively care about safe behavior. This requires promoting a culture of empowerment where workers take the extra step to do something about safety issues. Management needs to put safety in a positive light and send a simple but strong message encouraging workers to actively care. The safest companies understand that a safety culture can be the difference between a thriving business and bankruptcy, or life and death.

An incident-free workplace requires continual attention to three factors:

  • The environment
  • The employee
  • The employee's behavior

The Environment: A Commitment to Safety Starts with You

The environment is the easiest of these three areas to address because it starts with you, the decision maker. Controlling work environment issues means addressing common exposures such as daily housekeeping, diligent maintenance of walking surfaces, proper equipment and tools for the job, proper positioning to reduce muscle strain, and installation of proper fall protection to control falls from height exposures. The exposures mentioned in the previous statement are for example only, and your exposures may be different based on the type of work your company performs. The work environment you establish will directly affect how your employees view safety on a site and will reinforce your company's commitment to an incident-free workplace.

In order to promote an incident-free work environment, your company must ensure the necessary safety and health controls are in place and remain in place. Enforcement of minimum safety standards put in place by federal, state and local agencies is usually not enough. In order to reduce the potential for an incident, you must make the site environment as user-friendly as possible. Many times this requires moving beyond enforcing minimal safety standards onsite.

The Employee: Attitudes Influence Behaviors

The long-term success of your safety and health programs depends on the actions of all employees, from laborers to management. A culture must be established that empowers your employees to own their safety and rewards them for their positive behavior. Part of this empowerment is encouraging employees to believe that their active participation in the company's safety efforts will make a difference. Employees feel empowered when they have specific, attainable goals that are relevant and trackable. Goals need to be challenging but achievable. Safety accomplishments need to be publicized in order to improve employee self-esteem and to increase everyone's belief in personal safety control.

A major part of an effective safety culture is the attitude of your employees toward safety. Attitudes influence behaviors. Establishing a positive attitude about work and safety will help build a culture of safety-focused employees. Negative safety attitudes eat at a company from the inside and affect safety, production and quality. Employees must understand that the safety culture encourages each and every employee to take action if a safety exposure is observed.

The Employee's Behavior: Training is the Key to Success

Management must not allow workers to opt out of the safety process. This means ensuring your employees are properly trained to recognize potential exposures in their workplace. The quality of the training employees receive will play an important part in exposure identification. Companies should continuously evaluate the quality of the training their employees receive; training employees just to say it was done is not good enough.

Even after workers receive training, there is still an opportunity for them to opt-out. It is critical that management absolutely prohibit an opt-out. Once employees are trained, management must establish a culture that encourages employees to intervene when unsafe behaviors are exhibited and, more importantly, that encourages employees to take the initiative to address the safety issue. The most difficult part of intervening is talking to a fellow worker directly about his/her behavior. It is often uncomfortable to talk to a fellow employee about the need to improve his/her behavior - but it is essential. Employees and supervisors must understand that addressing another employee about his/her unsafe behavior is not an attack on the person; it is simply about behavior and maintaining the commitment to a safety culture.


The Employee's Behavior: Training Supervisors to be Safety Leaders

Addressing unsafe behaviors is critical. Many supervisors do not know how to properly address unsafe behaviors with employees.

Many times companies place their best employees into supervisory roles. These supervisors are often technically proficient, dependable and trusted employees, but they're not always leaders. The message these supervisors send to employees is so important. If the supervisor sends the wrong message to co-workers in regard to safety, it undermines your entire safety culture and can make safety an afterthought. In order to create a safety culture, it's important to spend the time to teach supervisor leadership skills.

By definition, a leader is a person who leads and directs the operations, activity or performance of another. It's important to train your supervisors to become safety leaders. Safety leaders must exert a positive influence and be consistent with the message they deliver to co-workers. Effective safety leaders use positive methods of influence and totally disregard negative sources of influence such as subversion (bribery, blackmail, gossip, backstabbing), regardless of impact on other people. Leaders "walk the talk." They influence by showing others that their behaviors are effective. In addition, they influence employees by always striving to surpass their safety goals. Even when there is a temporary safety setback, leaders will still strive toward these goals.

Safety Leaders: Six Rules to Live By

Supervisors must have credibility to be good safety leaders - they must live up to their influence. A supervisor not only needs to develop leadership skills, but also earn credibility. Supervisors need to learn the six management techniques for increasing positive influence and gaining credibility:

  1. Role Modeling
  2. Coaching
  3. Problem Solving
  4. Measuring
  5. Relating
  6. Enforcing

The Role Model

Supervisors need to set the example. If a supervisor works without fall protection, he/she is sending a negative safety message to employees. Supervisors are not exempt - must abide by the safety rules and processes that they enforce on employees. By doing so, the supervisor will gain insight into the problems and issues being faced by applying these rules and processes.

The Good Coach

Supervisors must develop a non-threatening coaching method that reinforces rules and processes. They must address workers in a positive fashion and should regularly remind workers of the positive items before addressing the issue of concern. As a safety leader, supervisors must always encourage workers to share opinions, ideas and concerns, but should also ask workers how they think the problem can be addressed. It is important to develop a general course of action with workers and let them have input on how to apply it; this is also an empowerment tactic. A good coach must be an even better listener. An effective coach must be prepared to issue discipline if necessary.

Problem Solving, Measuring and Relating

When problem solving, an effective safety leader seeks the input of other people. They solicit feedback from workers, survey the feedback and brainstorm for solutions.

One of the most difficult tasks can be deciding what to measure. Lagging indicators such as injury rates are considered reactive. Instead, a more proactive approach will yield better insights. Try measuring leading safety indicators such as positive or compliant safety observations.

Safety leaders also have to relate to workers; this is almost an extension of role modeling. Employees will form a connection with others of similar experience, so by encouraging supervisors to discuss similar situations that they have worked through, they gain understanding of their employees' perception and can give advice based on experience.

Enforcement of Safety Requirements

Now the tough part, safety leaders must enforce rules. They may try other techniques to assure compliance first, but in the end, supervisors must be willing to use enforcement if necessary. Supervisors must do the following when handing out discipline:

  • Give the positive when discussing negative. Remember, give four positive comments for every one negative comment.
  • Explain the specific rule, guideline or process that was not properly followed and the reason why the rule is important.
  • Explain the exact consequences of non-compliance.
  • Specify the desired behavior or method to assure future compliance.
  • If necessary, schedule a safety training for the desired behavior.
  • Allow the employee to discuss barriers to compliance.
  • End by assuring the employee's future success in compliance.

Continued Safety Comes from the Bottom

Creating a lasting incident-free safety culture takes a commitment from upper management. The support and direction from upper management is important to the success of any program. Your team of safety leaders needs to be mindful that safety programs should not be perceived as "coming from the top." Rather, by starting with empowered, educated employees, your program will earn credibility from "the bottom up" and will have a better chance of having a long-lasting effect.

Construction Business Owner, June 2009