The most important asset we have in safety is our workforce. There are far more of them than there are of us and no one understands the work, and often the hazards, better than they do. In addition, as workers are granted more involvement and control over safety practices, they are far more likely to defend and support them. Engaging workers in the safety effort is, therefore, a win-win. The company gets employees who feel like they are partners with a stake in the company’s success and the workers gain a sense of empowerment and pride of ownership in their work.
So why are we wasting these valuable assets? Instead of taking advantage of worker knowledge and active assistance in making their jobs safer (and more efficient). Too many organizations still seem to believe that the essence of safety involves ever more patronizing attempts to control the actions of their careless and misbehaving workers. Not surprisingly, given the “Great Resignation” we find ourselves in, many workers say they are dissatisfied by the lack of engagement in their work.
My experience has convinced me, however, that given the right environment, employees will readily help find ways to improve how their work gets done–including how safely it gets done. You can’t train in, preach in, or enforce in engagement. You must first build trust and mutual respect with the workers by humbly listening to them and convincing them by your actions that their input is valuable, desired, and expected. Trust isn’t something that happens overnight, but it starts with demonstrating respect for the workforce and treating them as adults and as assets rather than liabilities needing modification. If employee involvement is really what you want, you’ll also need to give up some of your perceived control and share it with your employees. Assuming you are willing to give up some of that control, let’s look at some specific actions you can take to help your organization benefit from an engaged and more productive workforce.
Begin at the Beginning
When you’re looking for new workers make sure your job announcements make it clear that you are looking for employees willing and able to engage themselves in efforts to help improve company operations and, in particular, safety. In short, input and involvement in operational improvement are part of the job. Likewise, job descriptions and new employee training should reinforce these engagement expectations.
New employee orientations often include some of the typical safety exhortations such as reporting unsafe conditions, knowing and following the rules, notifying supervision of injuries, etc. Looking beyond the boilerplate, let’s discuss some specific activities where workers can not only add considerable value but also feel that their value is appreciated in their company as well.
Workers can help improve nearly any operational area or organizational challenge. How employees participate in operational improvement will vary somewhat, depending on the needs and culture of the company. Below are some examples of opportunities to get your workers meaningfully involved in safety to the mutual benefit of themselves, their co-workers, and their employers.
- Involving workers in incident investigation teams. This involvement adds value by adding a floor level reality check to the investigation. Training workers in root cause identification is recommended.
- Involving workers in review of incident investigations for completeness, quality, and root cause(s) identification.
- Engaging workers in safety procedure development and review. This review should not be limited to new rules and procedures but should include existing ones as well. Even effective rules and procedures need to have a shelf life. People and conditions change. Workers are especially good at identifying and resolving problems here, as it motivates change based on individual strengths and weaknesses.
- Having workers involved in teams to review corrective actions elicited by incident investigations, audits, inspections, etc. Trained workers can help determine if root causes were adequately identified and if proposed corrective actions were practical and effective.
- Involving workers in audits and inspections. They know the work better than anyone and are the principal beneficiaries of safer operations.
- Providing systems for workers to readily identify safety problems and improvement opportunities. You’ll also need a system to ensure workers receive timely feedback related to their input.
There really is no limit to how you can engage the workforce in your safety efforts. Training development and presentation, job safety analysis, process safety reviews are a few more examples of processes that benefit from better employee engagement, but you are only limited by your needs and imagination. For the sake of safety improvement, and the productivity you only get from engaged employees, let’s stop overlooking our most important assets.
Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all laboratory operations.
Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.