Getting Workers Involved in Safety Strategies

By Safety Management Group

At some jobsites, one of the biggest challenges for safety professionals and supervisors is getting workers to “buy into” the value of workplace safety. It’s easy to stand in front of a group of workers and tell them that you expect them to follow safe work practices, but it’s far more challenging to get them to adopt those practices as their own guiding philosophies.

Companies that have a strong safety culture often have a high level of employee involvement in the development and implementation of safe work practices. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, because workers are most directly affected by safety issues. They’re the ones who encounter hazards on a daily basis, and their innate sense of self-preservation should guide them to safer approaches to their tasks. After all, they want to go home healthy every day.

In rare cases, employees will take the initiative with safety practices. Most of the time, however, getting employees actively involved in workplace safety will take a deliberate effort on the part of their employers.

Involvement pays
Because employees have a vested interest in workplace safety, involving them when developing protection plans can pay several benefits. First, workers tend to take safety rules and practices more seriously when they have played a role in creating them. Second, they’re closest to the hazards and most familiar with all aspects of the tasks being performed. Finally, when employers solicit input from workers and then incorporate that input in planning, those workers tend to be happier and more productive. It’s always a good feeling when our superiors treat our knowledge and ideas with respect.

There are any number of ways to involve workers in the development and implementation of safety plans, from simply asking their opinions to inviting them to serve on committees. Safety professionals can invite them along on site inspections. You can point to a specific task and ask them to identify the hazards and corresponding safe work practices. When an incident occurs, you can involve them in the investigation, because they may notice aspects you may miss.

Regardless of how you involve workers, one important thing to keep in mind is that volunteering to participate is not human nature. Most workers will be reluctant to step forward and indicate an interest in helping with safety. That’s why you need to take the initiative.

Ask for help
You probably already know which employees would be the best sources for information. You’ve watched them work, and you can see which ones take methodical approaches to safety, or obviously look out for the interests of their fellow workers. That guy who’s an outspoken critic of your recommendations can also be a valuable contributor. Often, a negative attitude is a sign that someone feels that their opinions are being ignored, even if those opinions are never voiced.

If you wait for workers to approach you with ideas, you’ll probably wait a long time. Instead, go to them and ask for their assistance. Let them know that you want to review the safety practices at the worksite and that you believe they could provide valuable insight. You can assemble a team or a committee to review practices, or you could even simply ask them to offer suggestions on how to make a particular task safer.

Rather than dictate what they should do, ask how they would prefer to help. Some employees may prefer to serve on a formal committee, while others would be more comfortable working with you on a one-to-one basis.

Create the atmosphere
If you genuinely want workers to be involved in developing and implementing your safety efforts, you have the responsibility to create an environment that encourages discussion, collaboration, and candor. Participants need to be comfortable presenting ideas to one another, and confident that everyone involved will listen. It’s human nature for employees to want to share their ideas, and group settings offer an excellent way to consider the merits of those ideas and identify ways in which they can be refined. Rarely will everyone be in complete agreement about a particular procedure or aspect, but it’s up to you to ensure that disagreements are productive instead of personal.

You can encourage discussion by beginning discussions with high-level safety principles. Share the central elements of those principles, and then ask how those elements relate to what goes on in the workplace. For example, you might begin a group discussion about fall protection by describing the requirements for a safe anchorage, and then turn to the group with, “So now that you know how to identify a safe anchorage, how should we approach tasks for which we’ll need fall protection?”

Invite workers to share stories from their own work histories about how following a safety practice protected them or a co-worker — or even about those mistakes that could have been prevented. They’ll learn a great deal from each other, and each story will enhance the value of a strong safety program.

Keep in mind that most workers — especially skilled tradespeople — are more intelligent than more people give them credit for being. You don’t need to give them every detail. Share the basic facts, and ask how those facts apply to their daily work, and they’ll come up with the procedures you need (along with aspects you probably didn’t consider). And, because the ideas are theirs, they’ll be more likely to use them.

Take time to educate
Workers may not need to know as much about jobsite safety as a safety professional, but sharing your knowledge and putting it in context for them may give them an entirely different perspective. They may know that you have to report incidents to OSHA, but help them understand what a recordable rate is and what that means in practical terms. Suppose the rate means that two of the people in your group are statistically likely to suffer a lost-time injury in the next five years. Ask them who wants to be the one who gets hurt, or which co-worker should be the one to suffer.

Point out how that recordable rate affects the company’s insurance costs and ability to land the best projects in the area. If desirable project owners have strict standards for reportable rates, share them. “If our recordable rate were to slip to X, Acme Enterprises wouldn’t even allow us on their property.” When you put concepts like that in practical terms, workers are more likely to view safety as something other than a nuisance.

Protect them and credit them
Finally, employees need to be convinced that they can speak freely without the threat of being punished. When it comes to workplace safety, candor is a valuable characteristic. A worker who worries about reprisals if he mentions a previously unnoticed hazard will probably keep that issue to himself instead of protecting his co-workers by sharing it. The first time a worker raises a sensitive issue, everyone will be watching for your reaction. If you demonstrate that honesty is indeed the best policy, others will be more willing to speak up.

In addition, make sure you share the credit when appropriate. If a craftsperson played a key role in developing a new procedure for a task, when you train his co-workers, mention his part in making it a reality. The co-workers will have more faith in something a peer created, and even if his face doesn’t show it, the praise will mean more to him than you’ll ever realize.

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