Do You Really Know How Your Employees View Safety?

By Bobby Pirtle, Safety Advisor
Safety Management Group

The president of a large construction company walks a prospective client through a jobsite. When the prospect asks about safety, the president brags about the top-to-bottom safety program. Two employees within earshot exchange glances and sneer. Another feels his heart race as he ascends a ladder.

Meanwhile, the management team at a manufacturer is trying to determine why higher-than-normal recordable injuries are driving their worker’s comp costs through the ceiling. “I don’t get it,” says the VP of Production. “We’ve put so much money and effort into implementing a safety program, but more people are getting hurt.”

Both companies would benefit from the same tool: a Safety Perception Survey. It’s a fairly easy approach that can provide an amazing amount of insight and useful information.

What is a Safety Perception Survey?

A safety perception survey is a research tool that delivers a candid appraisal of worker attitudes about safety and their employer’s safety culture. For companies that have never analyzed what employees think about efforts to keep them safe, it can be revealing. For companies with well-established safety cultures, surveys verify that measures are working while calling attention to potential areas of concern.

Think of a safety perception survey like the dipstick in your car’s engine. Although you’re pretty confident that you have enough oil in your crankcase, you’ll still check that dipstick to make sure the level hasn’t slipped and the oil hasn’t become dirty.

When we develop safety perception surveys, we customize them for the client’s specific needs and the nature of their business. Surveys can focus on a few highly specific areas or measure up to 21 factors related to the safety function. Some clients want to get to the root of a specific problem, but others just want a better sense of how well their safety programs are working.

Perception is usually reality
You may believe that you’ve developed the world’s greatest safety program. But if the people who are actually doing the work don’t believe that you have a strong safety program, you don’t have one. Period.

It’s important to survey all levels of your company’s operations, so you can identify how perceptions differ between populations. Typically, we’ll break surveys into three groups – the folks who are doing the hands-on work, a mid-level management group that may include supervisors and foremen, and the people in upper management. We ask the same questions to all three groups and compare their response rates.

Usually, the higher up an individual is on the org chart, the more optimistic he or she will be about the company’s program. After all, upper management understands the program’s intent and sees its cost, so it must be working well, right? Mid-level managers tend to have a more practical view and provide more critical feedback on actual implementation. When you reach the line employees, they’ll tell you what really happens each day.

While differences in perception are to be expected, they can also provide clues. If the gap is within about 15 percentage points, it’s probably not a big deal. But if there’s a larger disparity between any two levels, it may be a sign of trouble.

Simple formats work best

We’ve found that the most effective approach is to develop a list of simple statements that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” For example, a statement could be “I have received specific safety training for the work tasks I routinely perform.” This approach is particularly well-suited for line employees, because it makes answering each item as easy as circling their choices. Because they only have to decide between “yes” or “no,” their answers will typically be more immediate and honest.

It’s important to ensure that the statements are simple, clear, and concise, so that they are not subject to misinterpretation. Be especially careful if you have employees whose command of English is limited, because they may not fully understand the statements. If you have statements translated, be sure that the translation conveys the same intent (literal translations may have wildly different meanings).

If your employees all have access to computers, you can collect information online through tools such as Survey Monkey. But no matter how you plan to collect the data, make sure you’re asking for the right information and using statements than can’t be misinterpreted.

Ways to keep it honest
Companies are sometimes concerned that their employees may not provide honest answers, and some employees may be hesitant to provide negative feedback if they believe it might be used against them. Using a third party to conduct your survey is one way to minimize those problems. Another is to design the survey in a way that builds confidence, such as having the employee place the finished survey in an unmarked envelope that is then sealed.

Here again, the approach using simple statements and circled answers encourages honesty, because employees won’t worry that their handwriting may be recognized.

The value of sharing the knowledge
Once the survey is complete and you’ve analyzed the results, be sure to share them with everyone who participated. Some companies are hesitant to share what they perceive as negative information, but if it came from a survey of your employees, they already know about it.

Sharing a summary of the results assures them that their opinions were heard, and that you value their contributions enough to be candid with them. It also sends the message that you weren’t going to whitewash the results. So the next time you conduct a survey, employees will be far more willing to participate.

Just a starting point
Companies will usually see some very clear conclusions coming from a safety perception survey, but in many cases, the survey will only call attention to issues that deserve additional study. For example, if we see a surprising gap on a question, we may go back and interview employees to gather additional insight.

Sometimes, the answers mean the opposite of what the company might think. Take “I’ll act differently when I know that a safety inspection is being undertaken on my job site.” Although managers tend to view a “yes” answer as favorable, it’s really a negative, because it suggests that the employees consider safety only when they’re being watched. That means the company’s safety inspections may not be as accurate as previously believed.

Repeat and refine
Safety perception surveys are most effective when they’re part of an ongoing process. The initial survey can serve as a baseline for future surveys, giving the company a way to assess the impact of corrective efforts and to verify the continued success of the safety function. Conducting surveys once a year will provide excellent data for fine-tuning your safety program and enhancing your overall safety culture. 

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