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The 3 Critical Requirements for a World Class Safety Culture

Number 1 – All Employees Participate in Safety Management

When Behavior Based Safety (BBS) first appeared, it was often referred to as “Employee Driven Safety.” Many consulting companies implemented a process that was completely installed and administered by frontline employees. Although the idea was new to safety professionals, the employee participation movement had begun years earlier with Quality Circles and rapidly matured with additions from the Toyota Production System – referred to as TQM (Total Quality Management).

Although the value of employee participation was presented as an epiphany for Senior Leaders, organizational development professionals had actively promoted the use of human capital to improve quality, productivity, and profitability. The migration of this strategy to safety was just a matter of time. In the beginning, safety had been managed by one or two safety professionals using lagging indicators and crisis to prompt action and the attention of leaders. This is safety management by reaction and is basically indefensible as a strategy for preventing accidents and injuries.

The early BBS initiatives focused on creating leading safety indicators through the data created by employee to employee observations of job performance – a form of safety sampling that allowed employees to get feedback on job safety. The observations created a high level of awareness about safety in general and for the behaviors on a job that had historically led to injuries. As a result, recordable injury data showed a dramatic decrease that soon became published in safety magazines and presented at safety conferences.

With time, it became apparent that sustainability and continued improvement of the BBS initiative required active management involvement and support. Subsequently, the role of leadership was clearly defined and BBS initiatives helped transition safety from a priority to a value in organizations; safety as value number one was often seen in the literature and on company financial statements.

Successful BBS processes engage all employees in an active safety management role. The ultimate objective of BBS is to transfer the management of job safety from the safety management process to the individual. “Every employee a safety manager,” or “self-managed safety,” are phrases often used to describe the key criteria for a world class safety management system. This can only be achieved by employee participation in the safety management process; a key step toward each employee internalizing their job’s safety management priorities. Safety self-management means they perform their jobs safely because they want to remain injury free, not because management wants them to do it.

Number 2 - Visible Safety Leadership

It is probably overkill to point out how critical senior management support is for sustaining and internalizing the tactics of any initiative. Leaders communicate what is most important to them through behavior; what they write about, what they ask questions about and talk about, and what information and data they look at and react to.

Their subordinates read their behavior very accurately and if the boss talks about production speed, then production is a priority. Unfortunately, historically safety has been subordinated to production in a variety of ways that has led to many injuries. Supervisors catch everything rolling downhill; if the boss is on a tirade about production, then they translate that into their behavior regarding production speed and push employees accordingly.

On the other hand, if senior leadership talks about safety and BBS; if he or she looks at the data and asks questions and makes comments; if they pass through production and asks employees questions about BBS and ask the about things they need to perform their jobs more safely; if the leaders’ communications, public speeches, and presentations to the employees discuss safety issues before any other issues – then everyone gets that message as well.

Many companies that talk about needing a “booster shot” for their BBS processes are suffering from an absence of senior management support and involvement. If senior management is not looking at the BBS data and making comments – providing recognition for progress and effort – then the process withers. No motivational speech or gimmick is going to resurrect a BBS effort that is fading for lack of interest. If senior leadership is interested, without fail, everyone is interested.

Number 3 – Providing Attention and Recognition for Improvement and Effort 

The one missing element from just about every initiative an organization will attempt to implement is attention and recognition for those who are participating, improving, attending, contributing, promoting, and discussing the steps and applications of the initiative. If a quality problem is solved using Lean Six Sigma, or safe behaviors increase, or if more people volunteer to be BBS observers, it may be overlooked by everyone. Participation gets no attention.

For an employee, what gets looked at and attended to matters. If nobody talks to you about the fact that your work is high quality, then you begin to think it doesn’t matter to anyone. If an employee comes in early, stays late, helps a coworker who has fallen behind, pulls 2 shifts, or comes in on his or her day off and goes unnoticed, the employee’s self-talk says, “why am I going the extra mile to do something that nobody cares about.” Most employee enthusiasm and initiative is killed by the disinterest of management and supervision. Initiating and encouraging higher employee performance is inexpensive; interest, attention, feedback, and recognition – positive outcomes for extra effort accelerate more extra effort, build job satisfaction and strengthen supervisor-employee relationships.

Most managers, parents, and coaches know that intense negative pressure - threats, intimidation, warnings, shouting, emotional harangues – can create anxiety and fear that causes employees to try harder. So for the manager, parent, and coach they feel that this approach works. What they don’t see are the byproducts – the fallout in employee engagement, trust, and relationship deterioration that is a direct product of this approach. An employee who is afraid of the boss will do as told when the boss is around; when he or she is absent, they may behave differently.

The global business community is inundated by the language of positive reinforcement. The term has been used so much that its meaning and value have become lost in language. Everybody knows what it is and what they are supposed to do, but very few do it. Instead of positive reinforcement, try to show an interest in the work employees are doing – individually and collectively. Look at their performance data and make positive comments where it is appropriate and constructive suggestions where that is indicated.

You would be surprised how effective a bit of attention is in inspiring employees to higher levels of contribution. Most people get little attention for what they do in life. Most employees demonstrate their skills and knowledge through their work. If that work gets no attention, if nobody looks at their performance or talks with them about it, they have lost the best and only opportunity they have to demonstrate competence and value. Work is their greatest opportunity to build self-esteem and experience self-worth. Attention is important.