The Real Truth About Safety: Creating a culture of buy in

The importance of  communicating safetyKnowing that safety is important is clearly not enough to create (or even put a dent in creating) incident-free environments. We have heard the messages “Safety First,” “Target Zero” and, as a very dedicated guy in rural Louisiana explained it, “We ain’t toleratin’ no more dead dudes!” As powerful and eloquent as these messages might be, they haven’t produced the buy-in we might have hoped for.

Frankly, it’s not hard to imagine some skepticism arising in response to these messages. When I hear “Safety First,” I wonder: Are you paying me to do my job or to just not get hurt while attempting to do my job? The motto “Target Zero” seems to ignore the fact that in some industries we will have recordable incidents and fatalities regardless of huge improvements. Just because there is always some idiot who thinks that Jägermeister and welding are a great combo, does that mean we have failed at safety?

Overall the improvement is tremendous: in the past 25 years, we have managed to do very well and people are much safer on the job than ever before. But it seems that the complacency that causes some accidents can actually be created by having a great safety record. After all, if you have no recordable incidents for a year and you have seen great improvement, what’s next? Well … how ’bout Jimmy walking and texting (neither of which he does well) – and slipping and hurting his back?

The only way to change a culture is to get an extremely high level of repeatable buy-in. That means the message from leadership has to be very clear, simple to implement and not a total pain in the ass! It also means that we have to be realistic about what’s working. Have you noticed that the job site with the best safety record is the one where the boss makes everyone feel valuable, the people seem to trust one another and everyone gets along well? It’s true. There may be a few exceptions – a place where Jimmy and his three brothers (all less sharp than he is) happen to work, for example. (If your name happens to be Jimmy, it does not mean you’re accident prone. It’s just the name we are using in the article based on the fact that there seem to be a lot of guys named Jimmy in jobs that involve tools or machinery.)

Most research confirms that when people feel valuable, they make fewer mistakes. They are more loyal and they watch out for each other. They are consistently willing to do more of what they are asked to do. All of that results in dramatically fewer incidents and a true culture of safety.  But how do you make that happen in your organization or at your location?

Here are seven ways to make sure your environment is positioned to reduce incidents:

  • Beware of mixed messages: “Hey, you guys, be safe but hurry up! Don’t be so safe that we can’t make any money!” The real message is “Let’s get it done before 5 p.m. – but if you get outside the safety guidelines, rethink it.”
  • Make sure that the people around you understand that you have their back. They will be more likely to have yours. Watch your behavior and treat others with respect. Guess who will not have anyone rushing back into the burning building to save him? That’s right, the guy who nobody likes!
  • Be realistic about how people feel about safety procedures. If you have a process or situation that everyone makes fun of or complains about, look into it and make adjustments. There is nothing more dangerous than expecting people to be protected by things they obviously don’t believe in.
  • Remember that many accidents happen indoors in office environments. Approximately 76,000 people each year are hospitalized from putting their feet on their desks and leaning back in a chair. Acting like a big shot is not only obnoxious; it’s apparently dangerous! Also, women in high heels who stepped from carpeted surfaces to hard floors had a surprising number of injuries. (To be fair, I think men in high heels had even more.)
  • Communication skills are the foundation of safety. Let people talk about what’s important to them before you tell them your opinions. People who feel heard are much more likely to listen to you. To make safety happen, we have to be influential enough to have what we say create actions in others. If people see their input in your safety solution, they are much more likely to have buy-in and much less likely to be injured.
  • Don’t tell the guys in their 20s how brave you were “back in the day” before modern safety equipment. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and that means our younger brothers and sisters especially. On a job site, I once heard a guy in his 50s say to group of people in their 20s, “You young guys have all this protective clothing and special tools! In the ’70s, we were down in there naked with a Q-tip!” Challenging someone’s manhood makes you part of the problem.
  • Make sure you can clearly explain the value of a safety procedure or policy in 30 seconds. People buy into what they understand quickly. The leading addiction on the planet is not drugs or alcohol; it’s convenience. People will consistently abandon a safe process that’s complicated for an unsafe one that’s not. Keep it simple. It does not matter how smart you are if nobody knows what you’re talking about!

Whether you are a leader who is driving safety forward or just a person on the job trying be good at what you do without being hurt, it requires influence. Are you influential enough to make safety happen around you? Do you have the trust and the relationships in place to help safety concepts and procedures remain effective? For some of you, it may be hard to buy into how important it is for people to have a supportive environment to do their job. You may think that it’s all “charm school BS” and people should just do what they are supposed to do and be safe. But in reality, the overwhelming success of this approach is kind of like listening to NASCAR on the radio; you personally may not believe it makes any sense, but for some strange reason it’s still happening!

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