Volume 1, Issue 2 - Fall 2016

Why safety training isn’t enough [and what to do about it]

By Warren Clark. 

How do you define workplace culture? What does it mean to you? Many times, I’ve heard it characterized as ‘the way we do things around here’ — taking the good, the bad, and the ugly implications along with it.

All too often, manufacturers’ ‘safety programs’ are comprised of only the basic foundations of a safety system — policies, procedures, rules, responsibilities, new employee orientation, and training. But is training in all these areas enough? Should we be surprised then when safety outcomes don’t improve, or when we battle with the same recurring headaches day after day?

Building and sustaining an enterprise-wide culture of safety requires a top-down strategy, wholly embraced and communicated by management. The ground-level buy-in, meanwhile, starts with action. Employees need to see unwavering support and action for safety, from both senior leadership and supervisors. They need to believe the company is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect the wellbeing of staff (even at the expense of profits). They want to see words become action. In addition, they need to be armed with the tools and awareness to make safe, individual choices — not just at work, but off-the-job as well.

For most of us, the most dangerous task we’ll do every day without thinking twice is driving. Picture this: It’s a long weekend. You’re leaving work and wondering how you’ll make your 5:30 p.m. tee time at the local golf course. You’re dreaming about hitting that first shot when, all of a sudden, you pull out in front of a car you thought was turning. Horns start blaring and you’re left feeling about two inches tall, realizing (as you snap out of your fog) you could have been seriously hurt or hurt someone else.

That sounds like a situation that could’ve happened to you, doesn’t it? Maybe it actually did. These things occur all the time, because it’s hard to maintain a sharp focus all the time — it’s mentally exhausting. Now, just imagine you are over your head in debt, are in the middle of a divorce, or are battling substance abuse. How focused would you be? Workplace safety does not start at the factory doorstep.

I think about the incidents I’ve seen over the years, and I wonder what else was at play to have resulted in these events. No amount of guarding, procedures, PPE, or training would have prevented them. Intuitively, I know they have been foundationally rooted in a cultural disconnect — a failure to recognize the role of external, personal factors in workplace incidents. In other words: I’m talking about things that are outside the control of the organization.

We’ve seen it in our own workplace. And while we are not near the ‘gold standard’ quite yet, the efforts we’ve taken to nurture a safe culture, and the subsequent decline in time-loss injuries, show a trend in the right direction. Those efforts were not overnight, nor were they absolute. They continue to evolve. The principles behind them, however, remain fundamental.

Timeliness

The best way to derail a safety program is to be slow in addressing safety concerns. There needs to be clear expectations and a genuine attempt by all levels of management to listen and respond. Corrective actions need to be acted upon in a timely fashion, based on the level of hazard present.

This concept also crosses over to incident reporting. Encourage full disclosure, and don’t criticize or downplay the issues your staff brings forward. That is the perfect recipe to eradicate trust, or destroy the employer-employee relationship in a unionized environment.

Communication

Clear and open communication is the crux of any safety program. The trouble is that everyone feels differently about what ‘good’ communication is, and whether there is enough of it. I have spent considerable hours thinking about how to communicate an issue to staff, only to find out the memo was misunderstood, murky, or missed altogether. I know you feel my pain — but that cannot be a reason to regress.

There is a delicate balance between disclosing enough information to ensure the message is relayed, and not too much that will overwhelm or dissuade people from listening (and comprehending). The medium needs to fit the message, too. Posters, e-mails, in-person meetings, and printed letters are all options. Selecting the wrong tool can create internal unrest, so choose wisely. When discussing important information, I’ve found group meetings, where everyone has the opportunity to participate, work best.

Honesty

You can easily substitute the principle of honesty with forthrightness. In my mind, they are two in the same. Employees want to know the facts, and they want to know them when they matter — no fluff. My theory is that if you exemplify trust in your staff to absorb and react to sensitive information, there is a stronger likelihood of self-ownership and change.

The other dimension of being honest is not external — it is a leadership team’s ability to be honest with itself. You know better than anyone where your organization stands, so don’t do anything too complicated or elaborate unless you, and your people, are ready and capable. The road of good intentions is paved with struggles and failure. Start small, build upward, and make compliance as simple as possible (while maintaining compliance with applicable regulatory bodies, of course).

Accountability

I’ve always been struck by how less accountable many OH&S departments are compared to their sales counterparts. Can you fathom a business development team with no targets?

The success of any safety program, though, should not be measured solely against the end outcome (injury rates, for instance). KPIs should, alternatively, be a product of the strategy, reflective of your organization’s values: How many safety improvement ideas were submitted by frontline staff? How many of those ideas were implemented? How many inspections and toolbox talks (or meetings) were held? Are inspections of critical equipment being completed?

Accountability, by the way, does not start with your staff. Can you guess where it does start?

Support your people

The existence of a good HR department is critical in helping build a strong safety culture. The burden of everyday life can be a struggle for people within your organization. Having an individual or team who can support staff in their challenges, whether it is through company employee assistance programs or simply listening, can help de-clutter the subconscious. Providing a safe haven for staff to talk or find resources to help them deal with issues is a great way of supporting employees, and can help them regain focus on their work.

Diligence

Last, but certainly not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the requisites of patience, observance, and the willingness to go one level deeper. Signatures on a safe work practice or procedure are not indicative of safety, or commitment. You need champions, and they need to be visible — whether they are on the shop floor or in the local hockey rink.

Make sure your organization values and rewards safety success — as a team and individually. It takes years, and a lot of momentum, to create a strong, positive culture of safety. It only takes a few bad decisions to turn the positive into a negative.

Warren Clark (CRSP, CES) is the health and safety manager with BEHLEN Industries LP, Canada’s largest manufacturer of steel building systems.