As a business or safety leader, you know how important it is to have a high functioning workplace safety culture
. After all, if you a have an optimal health and safety culture it means less accidents, which also translates into high productivity and job satisfaction levels.
Yet, some savvy managers realise that even though their safety record looks great, there is still something amiss.
It can be little things like one site keeps having minor forklift accidents or at another site staff just don't want to go to tool box talks. Maybe it's employees aren't reading any safety information on the intranet or in their inbox.
When companies mention these often seemlingly minor issues to me, I ask "How engaged are your supervisors in safety?" With a bit of thinking they will say "Well, I did find the supervisor driving the forklift with the forks up the other day" or "We have supervisors that just don't know how to engage people during their safety meetings, people get really bored".
Research has found that supervisor leadership skills, drive safety performance.
In other words, the values supervisors place on safe work practices, determines the level of safety at your organisation.
What this means is that you could be the CEO diligently delivering engaging safety speeches every month to your staff or the safety professional who creates lovely safety theme communication messages and then you wonder why nothing changes. Safety attitudes throughout the company remain unchanged, with interest and safety accountability levels falling by the wayside.
Why your Supervisors drive Safety Performance
Your supervisors drive:
- productivity levels,
- job satisfaction levels,
- skills performance, and of course
- safety performance.
What supervisors demonstrate and request from staff, influences the level of safety at a worksite.
This means that if you have unusually high turnover, job satisfaction levels (you do have a staff satisfaction survey, don't you?) questionable productivity outputs, staff being disinterested in improving their skills or poor safety performance, start looking at your supervisors.
As a senior leader, assuming that you're providing lots of positive safety communication information, a safety goal and metrics, safety meetings, operational equipment, safety training, risk assessment and safety systems, then it's not you, it's your supervisor.
Supervisors are the linchpins in an organisation.
They also allow for positive communiction between senior leaders and frontline staff, so if your new initiatives are falling on deaf ears, it's because your supervisors aren't buying in to your proposals. You actually need to get them onside and ask them how to present the information first.
By consulting your supervisor about what they think of your initiative, why you're introducing it, what you expect from them, what they would improve and the best way to communicate it, you will start to encourage their involvement meaning that they will be more likely to encourage others to accept it.
To see what other subtle signs indicate that your supervisor is damaging your culture (whether intentionally or unintentionally), download our free 18 Supervisor Behaviours that Produce a Thriving Culture to audit your supervisor skills and find out where they need training.
Use this checklist to audit whether your supervisor is increasing or decreasing your safety performance.
If you discover that your supervisor or supervisors are performing superbly, take them out to lunch and let them know what a good job they're doing.
But if you find out that they are subtly contributing to declining safety or productivity performance (they're both linked), then consider signing them up for a training course such as Supervisor Leaderships Skills for a Safe Workplace, which we have created to train supervisors on the 9 Connect and Collaborate skills to improve safety performance.
So what subtle signs have you found that contribute to poor safety?
Regular, open communication and consultation about safety is a proven way to reduce injuries and workplace accidents.
However, despite the best intentions of companies, supervisors and safety professionals can often give subtle, unconscious signs to females in the workplace that their views do not matter.
Called gender bias, most males (and even females) are not even aware of it (you can actually check your gender bias level, with this clever little Harvard quiz).
Having worked in a variety of industries over the years, I have been shocked with the amount of sexism I have faced while working with safety professionals. The sad thing is none of these men would even realise that they suffer from gender bias. After all, they're married and some even have daughters (although, most have only sons).
Before I list some everyday gender bias signs, I want to point out that this isn't a rant against men. Far from it. I believe men and women are equal. In my opinion, no gender is better than the other. In fact, that's quite an immature opinion to me. Rather, I believe both men and women have different skills and when you put them together magic happens. Our differences make us one great, amazing whole.
However, the fact is that women are most often the recipients of violent crimes and often live under the threat of constant violence, as well as their children.
What I want to do is point out some very subtle gender biases that even women have become accustomed to accepting as the norm. Often when I talk to other women about these issues, they say that they never say anything about it, for fear of being labelled a "man-hater". Quite disturbingly, some of these women work in senior management positions and have more ability than most to break-down gender barriers. This is ridiculous and it's time for both sexes to become more aware of these issues, talk about it openly (and without recrimination) and resolve the issue.
After all, as I've discussed in a few blog articles, being quiet only allows bad behaviours to flourish, resulting in massive safety accidents, ethical breaches (GFC, anyone?) or psychological disturbances (see How a Culture of Fear Breeds Dodgy Workplace Practices and Are tyrants threatening Staff Safety in your Company?).
Four Subtle Gender Bias Signs
Here they are:
- Not shaking a woman's hand - This is a pet peeve of mine and was a shock to me when I started my career. Men who are quite obviously uncomfortable with women will avoid shaking their hand, but will enthusiastically shake the hand of every man in the room. When I used to attend meetings at advertising agencies, I would be shocked when the males from the ad agency would ignore shaking my hand, even if it meant I had to leave my hand hanging in the air like a discarded dish rag. My male manager at the time told me "Just put your hand out and be forceful. Don't let them ignore you". While that solution works sometimes, it does get rather tiring. Another issue is that some men only shake a women's hand as some sort of consolation attempt which is usually a feeble, weak hand shake accompanied with a grimace (as in "I'm just doing this to be polite, don't take this as a sign I think you've got anything worth knowing about" that does little to encourage female participation in meetings.
- Avoiding eye contact - This is another sure sign of gender bias that can run rampant in meetings, when men just avoid looking at females in gatherings, preferring to only talk and ask questions to men (which by the way, seems really weird). When a woman does ask a question or say something, they will look down at their notes or look to another man. Recently, I had a bank manager come to our office to talk to me about a business loan. I could tell he was quite uncomfortable with talking to a woman about running a business and his eyes started darting into the office of my male partner, looking at him imploringly for reassurance. I got up and shut the office door. No point in the bank manager trying to get eye contact with a male in another room.
- Assuming women are stupid - This is a really subtle one, but it is often used to shut women down. This is the one I've noticed to be quite rampant among older, male safety professionals. I recently caught up with a male safety manager who had changed jobs. I let him know that I just wanted to talk to him to see if he had any interesting topics I could discuss in my blog. Maybe that was my mistake, letting him believe I thought he was an expert of some sort, because I spent one hour and 10 minutes listening to him going on and on about his amazing safety conversation skills (which appeared to be his attempt to convince himself). Most of the stuff he talked about I've written about at some length and created training. Yet, whenever I would add my views, he would dismiss it and say "That's not true" or "Yes, that's what I believe" and stop me from further elaborating on that topic. Finally, at the end of the meeting he said "I'm sorry, I've forgotten to ask, how you are. How are you?" He had no idea that being an expert at safety conversations means being able to listen to people. However, that's not the real point here. He assumed that because I was female, I didn't know much about safety (or any other business matters). However, his attempt of talking incessantly about how clever he was only just confirmed to me that he wasn't that clever and his views weren't worth writing about (for the record, when someone tells you that your stupid or infers that you are, they are only projecting their fear of being stupid onto you, so his continual need to let me know that he was clever and I was not, just showed that at some level he feared that I was the smarter one).
- Assuming working women don't have/don't like children - This is a weird one that even shows up the biases of women to other women. It was apparent to me when I was having coffee with a male safety consultant and talking about his adult children, when he exclaimed "Well, you obviously don't have children". This was his way of saying: "because you work full time, you wouldn't have time/interest/ability to be married with kids". That's of course, a very biased and wrong perception. He almost fell off his seat when I told him I had two small children ("yes, I work fulltime at work and then do another fulltime shift when I get home"). To my knowledge, I don't believe that this biased sign can effect safety levels, but it's worth pointing out.
Why Gender Bias Matters
When it comes to create a thriving safety culture, organisations need safety managers and supervisors that people know they can talk to about any safety issue. They also need to be experts at encouraging everyone in the organisation to think of safety solutions. But if you have male managers that are either subtly or covertly sexist, then even if women talk to them about their safety issues or solutions, it's highly likely that they won't do anything about them.
Furthermore, assuming a women is stupid and her viewpoint is not valid, reduces the intelligence of an organisation. This only reduces female contributions.
In the book, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman, her research found two types of managers - Diminishers and Multipliers. Diminishers reduce the intelligence of those around them and get around 20-50% from people, whereas Multipliers see intelligence as everywhere and thereby develop their staff, getting around 70-100% from people. In other words, they grow the intelligence of those around them. Shutting women down by criticising all of her arguments not only diminishes her, but it also lowers the collective intelligence of the workplace. It's just bad business.
Interestingly, further studies have shown that the more women you have working in a business group, the more the collective intelligence grows.
According to an article in Science News, the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well, shows that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups' individual members, with the tendency to cooperate effectively linked to the number of women in a group.
Little surprise then, that Credit Suisse analyzed more than 2,500 companies and found that companies with more than one woman on the board have outperformed those with no women on the board by 26 percent since 2005.
Including Women on Safety Issues
"If women ruled the world, there would be no wars".
And workplace deaths. After all, no mother would send their children to work knowing that they could die.
Women have a lot to offer when it comes to improving workplace safety. With their high levels of empathy, compassion and open communication, it's time for men to allow women to come forward with their safety solutions.
Assuming male safety professionals reading this article wish to embrace a safe workplace culture, take a look at how women are treated in your organisation. Are they included in conversations? Are they given appropriate eye contact and encouragement during meetings? Are they comfortable in freely talking about their safety concerns?
By treating women as equals in your organisations who can freely contribute safety concerns and solutions, you will grow the collective (emotional) intelligence of your organisation.
Image: From Flickr by takomabibelo
Are your safety efforts are stuck in the past? Unfortunately, some companies think of safety as an afterthought ensuring that it is never fully integrated into the organisation. Thereby, ensuring that safety is never properly embedded into the company.
While I generally use our blog to give safety professional's advice, helpful tips and how-to's, sometimes it's also beneficial to understand what a "bad safety culture" looks like, so you know exactly what to avoid - that way you can create a thriving environment for safety.
So if you're curious about what you should be doing to totally suck at managing safety, read on.
Here are 10 ways to ensure your safety culture performs poorly:
- Employ grumpy supervisors - Make sure when you hire supervisors that they don't like people - in particular senior management and frontline staff. Ensure they prefer to hide information because they've got some weird power issues and intensely dislike open communication. It's even better if they like to avoid or ignore people with any safety issues or concerns. Better still, make sure they are really bad at safety and do all of the processes wrongly in front of staff, yet pull other people up for their bad behaviour in a heavily critical way. Make sure they are allergic to giving positive feedback, prefering to criticise.
- Written training manuals - Supply staff with 150 page training manuals with no pictures, video content or photos. Use lots of long sentences and big words, that make you look smart. Make sure the sentences are not in the right order of how the task is done.
- Use managers who don't like to train - Have all new starters trained by managers who are overworked, unfriendly and who dislike spending time training. Ideally, they flick through the training manual and say things like "You don't need to do that, we never do" and "We've changed that process. Head office doesn't know what they're talking about" and "Just read this and I'll be back" (taking about 2 hours to return).
- Have senior managers who dislike safety - Make sure senior management intensely dislike safety and see it as boring and a waste of money. Ideally, they dislike talking to safety professionals and always say "no" to being involved with leading any safety initiatives.
- Every department operates individually - Encourage turf wars where every department competes with one another for budget or CEO approval. Ideally, departments do not collaborate and see safety as a separate cost and not part of any project.
- Let equipment break down - Ensure all of your equipment is barely working and staff have to learn innovative ways to get them to work. Ideally, maintenance is done when equipment is totally broken down. Supply PPE with holes in it and make people wait weeks to receive safety gloves that are on "back-order".
- Blame people for poor safety - When there is an accident or incident, blame the person and let them know it's because they're stupid. Let everyone know that safety is bad because well, essentially they are. Ensure people are aware that safety can't be improved because they can't be.
- Distrust experts - Avoid any internal or external help, in particular any that have any marketing or sales expertise because that has nothing to do with safety. After all, marketing is all about tricking people. Ensure all your safety communication is written by real safety professionals (preferably self-righteous and who don't like to learn new things) and who have never had any training in communication and like to talk to people (in a monotone voice) until they fall asleep in meetings.
- Have really boring tool box talks - Ensure your supervisors make the toolbox talks go on and on with no actions or decisions made. Have staff turn up who don't want to raise any issues. Make sure there is one or two people who just like to complain without offering a solution and who rally the rest of the employees to be on their side.
- Let staff play - Encourage staff to play around dangerous equipment and play jokes on each other. Of course, this can mean staff tease other people about little things like their hair colour, skin colour, religion, IQ level and gender. Ignore it when people come to work drunk or high and start covertly drinking. (My favourite is a boss I had who would hide his wine glass behind a picture of his family on his desk from around 11am in the morning. Let's just say he got very angry, if you said anything).
What else can you do to totally suck at safety? Write your comments below.
We've all experienced the critical, negative work colleague who puts a dampener on everything. They complain about the boss, other staff members, customers, new initiatives and always seem to see something sinister lurking behind a new initiative. They only seem to laugh when someone hurts themselves.
A lot of us have learnt to avoid being around these people, by desperately trying to evade them throughout the working day, so as to not get sucked into the negative, whirling vortex of dark energy swirling around them.
But sadly, the majority of people do get sucked into the vortex. They start believing all of the cynical comments and before long this negative worker has stream-rolled all your efforts for a positive culture. It's almost as if a light switch went off in the room and every-one else in your team sees darkness. Other staff start being cynical and pretty soon you have a toxic environment, low morale and a real challenge to get staff to embrace change (or even safe work practices).
Welcome to human nature! We see ourselves in terms of other people and groups. Evolution has taught us that it is beneficial to live in tribes, where we can share out the work of daily survival.
The Group Collective
Humans like to align themselves with the collective. However, groups can also be undone through a collective ego gone wrong (just like individuals!). Yes, that's right! Groups develop their own collective ego and sometimes group egos can make group identity become a negative experience.
In the book, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, he discusses how the ego collective manifests the same characteristics as the personal ego. Just like with individuals, groups thrive through separation and identification. The group ego searches for common enemies and the need to be right. Over time, the group will come into conflict with other groups (or each other). Blaming a common enemy is part of separation and what a group ego likes to do. This could be another company group, or more detrimentally a particular person in the organisation or even, the company itself.
Think of riots where people who normally behave well on their own, get caught up in the group and loot, fight and set fire to cars. Normally, these people wouldn't do this, but it's the ego of the group behaviour that motivates them to behave destructively.
Likewise, in the book, Bit of a Blur, the Blur bassist Alex James (Blur is a British band from the 1990's) remarked in his biography that doing a gig with a small crowd was always more challenging than performing to an audience of hundreds, or even thousands. Blur, like all bands, found it much harder to get a handful of people excited, whereas large crowds could easily be whipped up into a frenzy.
"Since 95% of people are imitators and only 5% initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer." Cavett Robert
Like all negatives, there's always a positive. Businesses can build on this strong need for group identity to build a thriving organisation.
Here are four techniques to use to stop negative people from eroding your positive safety culture:
- Using the fear of rejection - Just like the negative person that can influence all of those around them, so can a positive person. You know when you have built a positive culture, when staff members publicly shame staff for merely making a negative remark. Seek out the influencers in the group and ensure that they always buy-in to your suggestions. Teachers like to leverage this by threatening to make the whole class stay back after school, until the one child who has caused an issue steps forward and takes the blame. If you have a "negative Nancy", work on the group influencer to accept your ideas and to ensure they ignore any negative feedback thrown their way, thereby lessening Nancy's ability to negatively affect people.
- Set Goals to Ensure Group Cohesion - Get your team working together by specifying a safety goal. Motivate people by working on that goal together and discussing how progress is going each week. Ideally, have it as a number that can be displayed everywhere. This is a great way to stop "Negative Norm" from having too much influence, as the main focus will be achieving the safety goal.
- Safety KPI's - Following the last point, have KPI's in employee's job descriptions that tie their safety performance to a key performance indicator. Get individual safety performance tied to group safety performance. If "Negative Norm or Nancy" start playing up, speak to them individually about how they are going with achieving their safety KPIs. Uncover their fears and try to nip them in the bud.
- Core Values - Make sure you reinforce your company core values as frequently as possible, to bring everyone into alignment. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, in great companies there is a fervent elitism where staff feel they belong to something special. Staff that don't embrace the company vision and culture are ejected like a virus. This is why getting staff aligned with your core values and vision is so important to establishing a successful company culture. Organisations that have staff aligned with their core values often have a much easier time getting new initiatives through that might need staff to change behaviour (provided that the new initiative is framed in terms of their core values and vision).
When it comes to developing group behaviour, it's important to encourage people to consider the group rather than themselves (safety is really relevant here).
In the book , Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, they stated that staff will frame questions to themselves based on a whole range of identities such as gender, race, age and their job title. For example, a scientist will make decisions on how they believe a scientist would make a decision. The trick in using group identity when wanting staff to change behaviour or embrace a new goal is to word it so they make a decision based on what's best for the group. Otherwise, you start getting issues with the individual ego taking over.
Successful businesses can leverage this human trait to copy other human behaviour to build a great company where staff are aligned with the values and vision of the company and who fit the culture. It's also an important component of any workplace safety campaign.
Safety professionals often complain about how hard it is to get people to listen to them about safety. This is often a subtle sign that it might be time to change how they approach communicating the need for safe behaviours, rather than getting frustrated that it's not working. After all, as Einstein said:
"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"
So assuming you want to be more sane (or at least, keep your sanity) in how you approach safety communication, let's take a look at other industries and how they persuade.
The best example is the marketing industry. After all, if you can't persuade people to buy your products and services, you're not going to be in business long. When it comes to persuasion and influence, marketers know how to write and talk about their offerings in a way that makes people want to buy. Essentially, as a safety professional you also need to learn how to get people to "buy into safety".
Now, while I could provide you with a crash course from Marketing 101, the easiest thing for you to learn is a four step process for persuasion.
In the book, Persuasive Business Proposals by Tom Sant, he uses a four step process to combine elements of information and evaluation. While this is written for companies who need to write clear proposals on their offerings and how it can help improve business, it is also a worthy model for safety professionals.
Use this helpful process to communicate more persuasively about safety in your writing and during safety induction training. Also, use this method when discussing or reporting on any complicated safety problems to your company board or senior management.
Step 1: State the Needs or Problems (Why)
If I put my marketer hat on for just a moment, this is one area even experienced marketers can get wrong. We've had a lot of success promoting new products or existing products that aren't getting much traction, just by starting with explaining the problem. People need to know "why" something they haven't considered before is important for them. After all, if you don't know you even have a problem, you won't think you need a solution.
In the book, Start with a Why, Simon Sinek mentions the need to give context to "why" you need a product or service. This is how effective leaders communicate, while ineffective leaders start with the "how' or "what".
So explain the current issue with safety, why people need to keep safe, what your injury record is, so people begin to understand the problem.
Step 2: Outcomes (What)
In a typical marketing or sales presentation, you'd now introduce the results the customer could expect.
From a safety perspective, it's now time to explain the results that can be achieved and how this can be done. Show how you are going to measure success. Get everyone excited about what the future can look like.
Often, it is tempting to jump to the solution. However, start by explaining the results that will be achieved and then go to the how.
Step 3: Recommend a Safety Solution (How)
Now, you can talk about your safety recommendation. Explain how the solution is linked to the initial safety problem.
Discuss what you need everyone to do, to get to the right outcome.
Step 4: Prove it can be done (Proof)
To ensure you influence seasoned, cynical employees who think they have seen everything, you need to offer some proof. This is also where you need to be creative and give examples from other companies, or if possible, examples from your own company, that what you require can be achievable.
For example, you can talk about how Alcoa improved safety by focusing on how safety was reported (if you are improving overall safety). For more information, read How Great Safety Habits foster a Healthy Safety Culture.
Providing evidence that great safety can be achieved is an important motivator and needed for believability.
So there you have it, a four step process to help you improve you safety persuasion skills.
Researchers have found that institutional habits exist in almost every organisation. Interestingly, one of the main differences between a company that outperforms on safety versus a poor performing company with safety are their safety habits.
Just like with an individual, good habits makes a person more efficient, energetic and happy with their life. While poor habits can result in being overweight, unfit, unhealthy and overwhelmed.
Companies are no different. Organisations that instill great safety habits ensure a great safety culture. While companies that don't even bother to work on safety habits, have a poor safety culture.
As the academic Geoffrey Hodgson states "Routines are the organisational analogue of habits".
Back in 1987, Paul O'Neill was knighted the new CEO of Alcoa. At the time, Alcoa was in a mess. The unions were unhappy and so were thousands of workers who regularly went on strike. The company had been steadily losing money year after year with failed product lines, poor safety and productivity.
Interestingly, as Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, O'Neill believed that changing organisational habits were key to transforming a company.
In his previous roles in Government, O'Neill learnt to become a master habit changer. O'Neill said: "Every time I looked at a different part of the government, I found these habits that seemed to explain why things were either succeeding or failing. The best agencies understood the importance of routines. The worse agencies were headed by people who never thought about it and then wondered why no-one followed their orders".
Known as keystone habits, some habits are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything, so that when people start changing their habits, they start changing other unrelated patterns in their lives, often unwittingly. Research has found that families who eat dinner every night together have children with better homework skills, greater emotional control more confidence and better grades. While those who start exercising regularly. start to eat better and become more productive at work.
O'Neill said in the book The Power of Habit : "I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can't order people to change. That's not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on thing. If I could disrupt the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company".
To improve safety at Alcoa, O'Neill had to change the habits that matter most to people. So his first choice was to focus on safety and to design an audacious goal to motivate people: Zero injuries.
Working on improving keystone habits does not mean that you have to focus on getting every single thing right. Instead, by identifying a few key priorities and leveraging them as much as possible, they can be levers of change to create a powerful domino effect.
Intuitively, O'Neill changed safety behaviours by focusing on a safety plan that centred around the habit loop:
- Cue (employee injury)
- Routine (report to supervisor, who reported to unit president, who reported it to O'Neill in 24 hours with a plan to make sure injury wouldn't happen again)
- Reward (potential promotion).
Staff quickly learnt that if they wanted to get promoted, they had to start reporting and solving injuries. Meanwhile, O'Neill made sure that everyone believed that Alcoa could be a safe place to work.
This was all that O'Neill focused on to transform Alcoa. He introduced a new process to report an injury. While it might seem quite rudimentary, it's effects were widespread.
This is because it made it important for staff at all levels to communicate and work together to find solutions. This had a massive effect with one of the interesting results being an online safety reporting system which made Alcoa the first company to develop a worldwide email system.
It also meant that the hierarchy fell part and all workers were able to call O'Neill at any time about safety.
As Alcoa's safety patterns shifted, other aspects of the company starting changing with incredible speed. In the past, unions had fought against measuring productivity of workers, but it was now fully embraced because it helped everyone to figure out where in the manufacturing process things were not working. For years, managers had resisted giving workers the authority to shut down a production line when the pace was to fast. Now, finally this was accepted because it stopped injuries from occurring.
Just like how changing a personal habit, overhauls a wide range of habits (for example: starting an exercise program means automatically improving your diet and smoking less). Alcoa staff also found that improved safety habits improved other parts of individual's lives. Employees became safety evangelists and began to stop other workers on the street who were not following correct safety procedures and provided advice on the best way to proceed.
Safety Measures = Profitability
O'Neill never promised improved profits, yet, the company became more profitable. As safety improved, costs decreased. Raw materials were no longer spilled so frequently, broken down equipment was replaced which resulted in higher quality products being manufactured, as equipment malfunctions affected product quality detrimentally.
By focusing on safety, O'Neill inadvertently discovered a keystone habit that just by putting in the spotlight and improving, it enabled other habits to flourish by creating new structures and establishing a culture shift, whereby change became contagious.
What keystone habits are lurking in your company that you can improve to create a wave of change throughout your organisation?
Over the years, I've got to work with some great safety professionals and senior executives. What I have noticed about companies that are excellent at safety, is that they often have a senior executive (such as a board member, CEO, COO, Executive General Manager etc) who has been heavily involved in safety at some time in their career. They've had experience, at a grassroots level, to improve company safety. They know that it always pays to put safety first, before profits.
Senior leaders who are very strong advocates for safety ensure that the CEO or their board address safety issues promptly and correctly.
Too often, I get safety professionals asking me how to sell safety benefits to their senior management. My knee-jerk response is to say that they need to resign, as it's a pretty tough call to improve safety without senior management support. However, the reality is that if there were more company leaders with a safety background, there wouldn't even be this ridiculous issue whereby senior management need to be convinced that safety is important (it seems so 1960s, no wait 1990s!).
So my challenge to all the budding (and even those, who have, shall we say blossomed) safety professionals out there, is that if you are really passionate about safety, then you need to seriously consider working towards being senior management material so that you can improve the scope of safety at a higher level. While you can do a lot to improve safety on the front line, it's being able to drive decisions at a senior level with an unequivocal bias towards safety, that will make the real difference. This means you need to start developing a whole lot of skills that aren't to do with compliance. Rather you need to start developing your influence, communication and engagement skills. By doing this you can be the secret safety superhero, that works quietly behind the scenes for safety.
I don't recommend that every safety professional should aspire to be the next company executive general manager or Chief Operating Officer. Those jobs aren't for everyone. However, even if you don't consider yourself senior management material, it's still important to develop your safety superhero skills.
Here are 10 important skills for safety professionals (that exclude compliance and safety knowledge which is a given):
- Commercial knowledge - Too often, safety professionals consider safety as one piece of the jigsaw, but don't understand how it fits in across a range of areas of key business areas such as profits, production and so on. Ideally, safety professionals get the opportunity to work in a range of departments, so that they understand how the business works as a whole.
- People skills - This one is a given, but I would add that a true safety professional must be a real people person who likes people. After all, to really care about safety is to care about humanity and keeping people alive at work (remember this is superhero work). Being a great safety professional is like being an artist. This means being able to listen, take action upon safety concerns and feel real empathy (as opposed to sympathy) towards fellow workers. And when I meant listen, I mean real active listening where you could repeat back what the person said, rather than just listening so that you can work out when to say next. It's about being curious as to what drives people, but not just so that you can compare yourself to them and feel better about yourself. Instead, it's about accepting that everyone is an individual with different motivators and working out the best way to improve for them. It also means getting out on the floor, experiencing working the night shift and being highly visible and approachable, among workers.
- Written Communication skills - Being able to write a convincing safety campaign, is in the realm of copywriters. Yet, a safety professional needs to know how to make the month's safety theme an interesting topic of discussion. It's really important that safety professionals learn some basic marketing skills, to better influence staff with email newsletters and posters.
- Safety conversation skills - Most professions need people with great verbal skills. When it comes to safety, it's integral that safety professionals have the skills to encourage people to openly discuss issues in safety meetings, but also the ability to be able to initiate a difficult safety conversation. You need to know a variety of approaches to talk to people about improving their safety habits.
- Ask, don't tell - If you want to build rapport and get the real answer from people, ask questions and hold back from answering. A real leader shows interest in people and asks questions. This means if someone omitted a key safety step you'd ask them about why they did, how they could have done it better, rather than just telling them what to do.
- Encourage safety accountability - It's important that safety professionals let people know that they are each responsible for safety, but also subtly demonstrate this. This means asking questions in safety meetings that get the team to come up with safety solutions, but not offering any ideas. In fact, the more you give ideas or offer the suggestions, the more the weight of safety accountability will fall back on you. Ask tough questions that challenge any outdated assumptions in your organisation. Find out what safety challenge they are most concerned about and what needs to be done. This is important, as by allowing your team to come up with ideas you are growing their collective brainpower. You're also encouraging them to think more in their jobs (and improve autonomy and even, job satisfaction), which will result in you having to help them less, while they become more responsible (quick note: this is also good with children of all ages).
- Run a high performance safety meeting - Running a safety meeting at a high performance level means getting everyone to come up with safety solutions, having open safety discussions and ensuring action is taken. Learn how to be an expert in running a safety meeting where everyone collaborates and action is taken (which is also about the two previous skills - encouraging safety accountability and leading by asking questions).
- Share information - companies that are great at safety have supervisors and safety staff that freely share safety information. For example, this means if they saw an article in the paper about a safety accident that involved the same equipment at their premises they would use that as an opportunity to discuss risks. It means passing on information from production. And it means giving everyone the best chance to do well in their jobs from a safety perspective. One of the ways Alcoa improved their safety record back in the late 1980's was to share safety information in real time to all of their sites worldwide (in fact, they were the first company to use email for corporate purposes).
- Removing gender bias - Human beings can be remarkably biased. Men can often unwittingly have a bias towards women at work even when they think they agree with feminist principles. It's important for male leaders to also include women in the team (without subconsciously blocking them). And it's also important that female leaders, include males. However, if you're a male safety leader, it's important that you ensure women feel comfortable talking to you about safety issues and that you will take matters seriously. Here are some suggestions from, the Harvard Business Review article, Is Gender Bias Undermining your Company?:
Notice how you interact. When you’re in a small group, do you tend to exchange more eye contact with the men in it? Do you speak more often to men than to women? If you do notice a bias toward men, try shifting your attention slightly. Shake the woman’s hand, and exchange eye contact with her even if she's not talking. If she's being quiet, ask for her thoughts. (Don’t overdo all this, though, as you could raise the discomfort level.)
Actively listen. It’s easy to ‘hear past’ someone who is talking. (Our minds work about five times the speed of our mouths. In our rush to finish the speaker’s thought and put our own two cents in, we shut the other person down.) If you have a bias, it’s even easier to want to interrupt. Slow down and listen. If your response demonstrates that you've heard what she's said, she'll feel more enabled to contribute more fully to your organization.
- Be able to work with senior management - It's important that safety staff know how to work with senior management and also how to influence them. Being able to get senior staff to support a new safety initiative is integral. At the same time, if senior management want to push a new initiative it's important that you let them know they best way for it to work. It's a two-way relationship.
It takes a fairly remarkable safety professional to be able to talk candidly with a range of people and foster an open and positive safety culture. Having the courage, to lead by asking questions will grow your organisation's intelligence, but also improve safety accountability. This means being able to see the big picture of how safety fits into the whole organisation and all its moving parts, while at the same time acknowledging that every individual is different and being able to change your communication and influence style per person (and gender). Oh yes, also having compliance knowledge is important, too!
So do you have what it takes to be a safety hero? What do you want to be - dedicated to compliance, or someone who can foster others to have a deep awareness (and appreciation) for keeping safe in their job or someone who can secretly be safety's supporter working quietly in the background?
Image credit: Arielle Ross, 8.75 years
Regular communication and consultation about safety is a proven way to reduce injuries and workplace accidents.
In a US study, it was discovered that employers report a $3 return for every $1 they invest in safety programs – provided that they have regular safety committee meetings to stay on track.
Despite good intentions, not all safety meetings, nor toolbox talks are created equal.
In the mid 1990's, Marcial Losada undertook extensive research into the characteristics of high performance business teams.
Teams were classified into high-performing, mixed and low performing based on a number of internal and external evaluations. Interestingly, other striking differences emerged that highlighted differences between how the teams behaved during meetings:
High performance teams had high connectivity (which means they were responsive to one another) and they asked questions as much as they defended their own views. They also cast their attention outward, as much as inward. When a challenge occurred, they remained flexible and resilient.
Mixed performance teams - As could be expected, mixed teams sat in between. But they fell apart when there was a major challenge.
Low performance teams - were far less connected to one another, asked almost no questions and showed no outward focus. They also crumbled during tough challenges.
Losada might not have been specifically researching safety meetings, but we can easily assume that there are high performing safety teams that manage to make great progress on safety, while some just languish.
So how do you make your safety meetings run more like a Ferrari and less like a Ford?
Transforming your Safety Meetings
When it comes to high performance meetings, there are four core areas:
1. Open communication - This is one of the critical areas and really is a sticking point as to how healthy a company culture is operating. Having open communication is a bit like a keystone habit, as discussed in the book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Some habits are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives (find out more about changing safety habits).
Companies that have open communication leads to a lot of the right behaviour that motivates people. It enables employees to see the big picture, understand the purpose of their job because everything is transparent.
Various studies have found that high performing teams enable everyone to talk freely and feel safe knowing that they will not receive personal criticism. Honest feedback is given and there is no talking behind people's backs. All safety issues are taken seriously and action is taken. Honest and transparent communication allows trust to flourish which is an integral part of a great safety culture.
2. Asking the Right Questions - We all know what it's like to be with a group where conversation flows freely. This is why it's important to have a leader who asks questions rather than telling people what to do. Team members are challenged, enabling great thinking to flourish. It's important that the leader has the skills to ask tough questions that challenge any outdated assumptions in the organisation. This includes finding out what safety challenges people are most concerned about and what they believe needs to be done. The leader must know to hold back from offering solutions. By guiding the team to come up with answers it grows their collective brainpower. It also encourages staff to think more in their jobs (which improves autonomy and even, job satisfaction), which will result in them less likely to have to ask for help on a regular basis. An important skill of the team leader is to encourage debates and for decisions to be made by the group, rather than the leader on their own.
3. Positivity - High performing teams have a high positivity to negativity ratio of 6:1. More positive comments are made, rather than negative. Poor performing teams have a ratio of 1:1.
Essentially, high performing safety meetings have leaders who "leave their ego" at the door. They coach, they question and they ensure everyone speaks up in a collegial, positive atmosphere. Blaming, keeping quiet and personal attacks are not tolerated.
4. Engaging communication - Showing statistics and data is an important part of any safety meeting. But sadly, numbers can be hard for the human brain to fathom. While it's difficult for me, as an ex-market researcher to believe that not everyone is a fan of statistics, I now realise that there are better ways to show your data. Just as there are better ways to influence staff during a new safety initiative. Avoid overwhelming people with data at the start of the meeting. Instead, start with a story and then show data that supports the information. Use colour to differentiate the information. And be aware that large amounts are fairly meaningless on their own. Instead, compare them to other more familiar items.
Take a look at this example, when explaining how much water people need to drink each day:
Telling people to drink 2 litres of water a day is pretty abstract, but by breaking down the information and using visuals makes it much easier to explain what people need to do.
It's important for safety leaders to know how to create workplace safety communication materials to engage people during safety meetings, but also as commmunication pieces to remind people about safety during their work (eg: email newsletters, posters).
Benefits of High Performance
By encouraging staff to openly discuss safety issues and how to address them, you naturally start to create a culture where people trust that they can speak up and offer ideas. It also encourages team members to accept personal responsibility for safety and to become more accountable. This enables you to tap into the collective wisdom of the group, rather than try and create solutions on your own.
As well as encouraging people to think and have more autonomy over their job, you also leverage the collective intelligence so that your organisation, overall, starts making better decisions. Of course, the better your company gets at thinking, the better it gets at business.
Does your company need to transform your safety meetings?
We've all experienced being at a company speech and feeling our anger grow as the company leader waffled on about a whole lot of stuff we knew wasn't entirely accurate and wasn't based in any achievable reality.
Usually these speeches were written with a deluded sense of self and what was really happening.
Fairly recently, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat when attending a safety seminar and had to listen to absolute nonsense about a so-called safety study which was based on a flawed research methodology with a small sample size of 12 companies. The principal consultant waxed lyrical about the findings, which were all dodgy as the sample size was too small to make any assumptions. Yet, it was enough for a whole range of safety guidelines to be doled out to companies, while my ex-market research brain was writhing around in agony.
But I digress...it's not just companies trying to sell safety information that are at fault. It's also companies talking about their own safety stuff.
Here's a list of top 5 things that the workers instantly feel uncomfortable about when listening to a safety speech:
- No personal connection - We all know this one. The company CEO waltzes into town from his or her interstate or international office and tells us what to do about safety. Yet, their speech shows little understanding about your particular site and no real desire to find out either. The solution is that all company leaders need to make an effort to individually talk to workers and have a personal connection with staff. And if that's not possible, then they need to meet with supervisors before the meeting to find out particular information about that site and get supervisor's input as to what needs to be said.
- No real safety plan - While well meaning, a lot of leaders like to say that safety needs to improve and provide such a vague outline of what that entails that no-one really knows where to start or what to do. There's also no follow-up, but instead general metrics that are either to easy to improve or too hard without proper action steps. For staff to believe any safety speech, it needs to be followed with clear achievable actions and then the leader needs to give regular updates on progress.
- No real concern for employees - This is pretty obvious and it is really glaring when the safety speech omits specific information about that site. It's also pretty obvious when the leader says that safety important, but everyone knows that the safety budget has been cut and you can't get access to safety gloves or proper equipment maintenance. This one is a real doozy for contributing to poor morale and a declining safety record.
- Focus on safety statistics that omit the big picture- Statistics are a funny thing. Just because you've done well with safety last quarter, it doesn't mean that you can assume that you're doing well with safety right at that moment. Most safety stats are out of date, or measure the wrong items or give people a false sense of security. A lot of safety statistics suck (and I'm not just talking about almost made up ones, like my friends the safety consultants like to do).
When we do well, we're likely to believe that our staff, our safety equipment and our safety procedures are the reason why our staff have a good safety record. Psychologists call this fundamental attribution errors.
But another quality that can lead to our downfall is the overconfidence bias. This is when we believe that everything is so good that we don't need to change anything.
In article "Why Leaders Don't Learn From Success" for Harvard Business Review April 2011 by Gino and Pisano, they wrote that what attributes to the downfall of many companies is the failure to ask why syndrome. This is the tendency by humans to not investigate the causes of good performance. Senior teams no longer ask the tough questions which enable understanding of why safety is going well (and therefore, what they should keep doing).
Companies too often believe that their safety record is due to their excellent managerial skills, yet, it could through be through sheer good luck. Success makes us believe that we are better decision makers than we actually are.
Safety stats should be used as a guide that things are okay, but it is not a magical panacea that no more improvements can be made.
- Just talking - It's a given that leaders need to have good presentation skills to engage the audience. But even those with great speech giving skills, can believe that just there presence is enough. Unless, they're one of the chosen few doing a TED talk, it's not. Great speeches need engaging visuals or video content to help people remember and understand information. Steve Jobs , the former Apple CEO was a great speaker, but he also used visuals phenomenally well, to tell his story and help people understand information.
When it comes to safety speeches, workers want to know that they are safe at work and they can trust the senior leaders to ensure that safety is a priority. It has to be more than just lip service. People can always see through insincere and inauthentic speeches.
A great safety speech lets people know why safety is important and why they, the employees are important. It's not about the leader taking centre stage and showing off the latest statistics or providing a safety plan so flawed, that it will never work.
When you boil it all down, an awe-inspiring safety speech really signals to workers the level of compassionate leadership and commitment that their leader has for them. And if they can trust their leader, believe the information presented and feel that the plan is achievable , then mountains can be moved.
What do you dislike about safety speeches?
Back in 1987, every Alcoa plant, worldwide, had at least one accident per week. It was dangerous work. Molten metals bubbled at 1,500 degrees and machines that could literally rip off a man's arm were used every day. It was commonly accepted that some staff wouldn't make it home.
Yet, within a relatively short time, Alcoa became one of the safest companies to work at. Rather astonishingly, the worker injury rate dropped to one-twentieth of the US average. To this day, Alcoa is still exemplary when it comes to safety. In fact, the injury rate continues to decrease. It is now safer to work at Alcoa than a working at a movie studio, software company or accountancy firm.
So what happened? What changed Alcoa?
Safety and Paul O'Neill
According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Paul O'Neill the then newly knighted CEO of Alcoa, managed to improve not only safety, but company profitability all at the same time. By focusing on improving workplace habits, O'Neill turned Alcoa around, in a way no-one thought possible.
It all started in October 1987, when he made the rather surprising move for a CEO when at his maiden company speech, he chose a shareholder meeting to announce his focus on worker safety (and not the commonly expected CEO focus on making money). His speech is arguably the best safety speech of all time (which you can read at Is this the best CEO safety speech ever?).
At the time, Alcoa was in a mess. The unions were unhappy and so were thousands of workers who regularly went on strike. The company had been steadily losing money year after year with failed product lines, poor safety and productivity.
O'Neill, a former high ranking Government official believed that he needed to focus on what would bring Alcoa together - including unions and executives. And who could argue with him? Unions had been complaining about safety for ages, while managers knew poor safety contributed to low morale and lost productivity. He also knew that he had to change their routines. In his inaugural speech he said: "If we bring our injury rates down, it won't be because of cheer-leading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to be part of something important. They've devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we're making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution That's how we should be judged".
Changing Safety Habits
While unions, Wall Street and senior executives who were passed over for promotion panicked about what O'Neill was planning to do, he set to work. He improved Alcoa by focusing on four core areas:
1. Work out Why
In the book, Start with a Why, by Simon Sinek he mentions that mediocre companies when they start any initiative, be that marketing or a business process, first focus on the what and how and then why last. Yet, when companies first question why, the company does what it does, they often uncover hidden truths that enables everyone to truly understand what to do.
To reach zero injuries, O'Neill started to investigate why injuries were happening in the first place. To do this, Alcoa had to study how things were going wrong in the manufacturing process. Once that was worked out, people were brought in to retrain staff on more efficient and safer work processes.
The result was the Alcoa became more streamlined and productive. After all, correct work is safer work.
2. Change Routines
In the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, he explains the importance of the habit loop to change individual or even group behaviour.
Essentially, all habits include three steps. Let's take a look at how the regular habit of cleaning your teeth works:
- Cue (eg: finish eating breakfast)
- Routine (eg: brush teeth)
- Reward (eg: fresh breath, clean feeling teeth and no tooth decay).
All three steps need a firm belief that you are able to clean your teeth. This ensures you stick with your habit when life gets challenging.
Intuitively, O'Neill changed safety behaviours by using the same habit loop:
- Cue (employee injury)
- Routine (report to supervisor, who reported to unit president, who reported it to O'Neill in 24 hours with a plan to make sure injury wouldn't happen again)
- Reward (potential promotion).
Staff quickly learnt that if they wanted to get promoted, they had to start reporting and solving injuries. Meanwhile, O'Neill made sure that everyone believed that Alcoa could be a safe place to work.
3. Improve Communication
To improve workplace safety behaviours, it also meant that communication had to be overhauled in many different ways.
Vice Presidents had to start regularly communicating with floor managers, who in turn had to be in regular communication with the frontline workers. While frontline workers had to constantly think about safety improvements because they knew if an injury was reported, they would need to give the floor manager a plan, so that the Vice President had a plan to present to O'Neill.
Rather surprisingly, O'Neill gave out his personal phone number to everyone and stressed that if management was not following up on safety, that people could call him at home. He also gave frequent speeches and wrote regular communication pieces to staff about progress.
Previously, Alcoa had a rigid silo mentality which had thrived on departments working separately and not communicating with each other. Under the new system, silos broke down. Even the hierarchy crumbled, as now it was necessary for clear communication, and solutions between all levels.
In fact, so important was the need for Alcoa workers to communicate about safety at their own site, but also Alcoa sites across the world, that O'Neill took the unprecedented step of ordering Alcoa's worldwide offices to link up to an electronic network.
Alcoa had one of the first genuinely worldwide corporate email systems developed in the late 1980's, allowing staff to see safety data, in real time, around the world.
Amazingly, the opening of communication across Alcoa improved the company in more ways than just safety.
Frontline workers began to feel confident that they could suggest ideas to improve production. even if that meant phoning O'Neill at home with improvements. One such worker had an innovative idea to improve how Alcoa grouped painting machines together, which meant they could switch out pigments faster and become quicker at responding to changing demands in customer colours. This suggestion alone doubled profits on aluminium sidings in one year. Frustratingly, the same worker had been suggesting the improvement for 10 years to deaf ears.
4. Small Wins
The academic Geoffrey Hodgson wrote that "Individuals have habits; groups have routines. Routines are the organisational analogue of habits".
To change habits effectively, and to get momentum going, Alcoa had to experience some "small wins". Unfortunately, to get to this point, pain was experienced.
Six months after implementing the new safety habits, a tragedy struck Alcoa. A new worker that was young and keen was killed instantly when he unjammed an extrusion press.
O'Neill received the gruesome news at night and within 14 hours he was at an emergency meeting in Pittsburgh with all of the plant's executives and officers to painstakingly run through the accident and work out what went wrong. They discovered dozens of mistakes that had been responsible for the death. From those mistakes they implemented new procedures such as ensuring that during training, workers knew they wouldn't be blamed for equipment breakdowns and that managers did not allow anyone to jump over barriers.
A week later, all safety railings at Alcoa's plants were painted yellow, new policies were written and managers asked employees to suggest proactive maintenance ideas and rules were updated to specify that no one would attempt unsafe repairs.
And then finally, Alcoa experienced a small win. A considerable decline in the injury worker rate.
The unfortunate death acted as a tipping point that increased staff motivation to change safety habits. It brought about such a profound shift with safety habits that the change inevitably spilled over into other parts of worker lives. New ideas were regularly suggested, productivity surged and staff leveraged the new email system, to not just communicate safety, but to give Alcoa the edge in sending pricing intelligence to their other international sites. It was like a secret weapon that took years for the competition to figure out.
With any new safety plan or initiative, changing key safety habits and routines is critical for success.
Interestingly, as Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, when people start changing their habits, they start changing other unrelated patterns in their lives, often unwittingly. Research has found that families who eat dinner every night together have children with better homework skills, greater emotional control more confidence and better grades. While those who start exercising regularly. start to eat better and become more productive at work.
Known as keystone habits, some habits are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.
To improve safety at Alcoa, O'Neill had to totally transform corporate habits. While he never promised improved profits, the company became more profitable. As safety improved, costs decreased. Raw materials were no longer spilled so frequently, broken down equipment was replaced which resulted in higher quality products being manufactured, as equipment malfunctions affected product quality detrimentally.
Being fixated on improving company safety enabled Alcoa to improve company productivity and profitability in ways unfathomable to the average business leader.
Is this a safety plan your company could implement?