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Answer These Questions Candidly for New 'Road Map' to Effective Safety Program
Eye on Safety by Donald R. Rung

By Don Rung
Date Posted: 10/1/1999

The process of consistently, effectively managing accidents and injuries is not always a straight, easy road.

Companies may find that the safety program they assumed would bring them improved workers compensation experience has in fact resulted in little or no change in the number or type of injuries they are experiencing. Equally frustrating is the fact that many companies that institute a safety program achieve positive results over the first few years but then find themselves with eroding experience and a program that has lost its momentum.

Candid answers to the following questions may provide an effective ‘road map’ for reorienting and reinvigorating a company’s safety program.

1. Have you set realistic, challenging goals for your program in terms of clear
targets, such as first aid injuries, lost-time injuries, near misses, and total costs?

Many companies initially decide to develop a safety program because of a sincere desire to improve accident and injury experience and reduce workers compensation costs. However, often the broad desire to improve is not translated into tangible targets. The lack of clear, realistic and measurable goals will result in a program that lacks focus and momentum.

Goal setting can be a delicate balancing act, as much art as science. Goals must be attainable but sufficiently challenging to motivate and shape behavior. They must be stated in understandable, measurable terms. It is critical not only to communicate the goals to employees but also to continue to communicate with employees about the company’s progress — or lack of progress — in achieving them.

2. Did you identify and commit to changes in behavior and process designed to improve your experience?

Too many failed safety programs relied on the ‘Tinker Bell’ effect — i.e., if we talk about safety a lot and believe hard enough, safety experience will improve. However, in reality, what you are, and how you do what you do, together got you where you are.

If you have less than favorable safety and workers compensation experience, it is inextricably tied to current process and behavior. Every goal you set should be linked to a strategy or set of strategies entailing changes in behavior and-or process. If you are unwilling to entertain the possibility of change, you will more than likely remain married to the same pattern of results.

3. Of the total daily ‘flow’ of management communications to your supervisory and line employees, what percentage is clearly safety-related as compared to production, quality, service and expenses?

Right, wrong or indifferent, your employees will tend to equate the issues you talk about the most with the things you value the most. Over the long run, they will behave in such a way as to give you what they think you want and value. If your safety-related communication is limited to a once-a-quarter update or a flurry of pronouncements when someone is injured, your employees’ focus on safe working behavior will reflect your focus on safe working behavior.

4. Do you do as good a job of explaining the ‘whys’ as you do the ‘whats’ and ‘hows?’

Too many times in our attempts to achieve safe operations, we tell employees what to do and what not to do, but we fail to take the time to explain our rationale for specifying certain behavior. The absence of explanations presents a number of potential negative consequences:

It reduces the potential for employee ‘buy-in.’
It increases the chances that they may understand your intent but behave in a contrary fashion.
It deprives you of the check and balance their questions may provide you regarding the soundness of your logic.

5. Do your employees perceive you as non-responsive to safety-related input?

Typically, companies communicate — as part of their safety program — that each employee has the responsibility to report any safety hazards and to provide safety suggestions. The critical ‘walk the talk’ test comes when employees actually embrace this responsibility and provide input to management.

If you fail to correct hazards they point out, to implement their suggestions, or to provide a coherent, timely explanation about why you are not taking action, you will be sending a clear signal to employees that the safety program is a superficial undertaking and is not a significant priority.

6. Are your people required to provide a proposed solution to each identified problem or have you fallen into the ‘find a problem’ trap?

It is difficult to engender a sense of ownership of the company’s safety performance on the part of your employees if their participation is limited to finding problems for which you find the solutions. There are several benefits to involving your employees in solving problems and developing solutions:

They feel more ‘vested’ in the solution if they have participated in the development of it.
If the employee is involved in a ‘line’ capacity, they may have perspectives you do not or see alternatives that you do not.
Requiring employees to provide a proposed solution tends to reduce the potential for your employees to fall into the mind set that their only role is to find problems.

7. Have you limited your employees to identifying symptoms and not allowed them access to ‘process?’

The vast majority of hazards identified in the workplace are a symptom or result of flaws in the structure of the production, distribution or service delivery process. While economic and physical realities can always place constraints on change in process over the short term, line personnel often have valuable input as to alternative ways to accomplish what you want for the equivalent cost and improved safety. The deeper their involvement in the evolution of the solution, the greater their sense of ownership in the result.

8. Have you brought in outside resources and-or sent your people out for training and-or education?

Safety programs often become stale because of in-bred perspectives. Local colleges or universities with safety and health majors, local hospitals, fire and rescue services, insurance providers, OSHA or state agencies frequently will provide services and speakers at no charge, providing fresh input and perspectives on your safety program.

Attendance by one or more of your employees at a safety-related seminar or training sessions can identify new approaches to the problems your company faces. Off-site visits to the plants of friendly competitors with successful safety efforts also can be beneficial to building new perspectives.

9. Are you clearly reflecting support of the company’s safety efforts and safe job performance in the communication that takes place in performance appraisals and in the way you compensate your employees?

The way you review and compensate your employees can have a direct bearing on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of your safety program. Your salary and wage structure and adjustment process should reflect your stated commitment to safe working behavior. All other things being equal, you should be paying those who demonstrate safe working behaviors more than those who do not.

If your compensation dynamics reward both safe and unsafe employees equally, you run the risk of unproductively investing substantial time and money in a ‘safety program’ that will not nor can not produce the results you intend.

(Editor’s Note: Donald R. Rung is vice president for technical field services for Lumber Insurance Companies in Framingham, Mass. He may be reached at (508) 872-8111.)


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