Step Aside, Compliance - There Is More To Gain from Safety

After years of gearing up safety management programs that coldly demand compliance, an employee's culture, age and personality prove more crucial to safety success than first recognized.

Tell the truth. What are your real expectations for your safety management program? "Let's be honest," said one exasperated business owner. "I'd be happy if it only got my workers to do what they're supposed to do in the first place."

If compliance is your answer, go to the back of the line.

Why settle for so little when the potential exists for much more? Safety management programs can be designed to solve a myriad of problems facing businesses, not just compliance. High personnel turnover, generational and cultural conflicts, and non-productive employee behaviors can all be reduced through safety management, but only if more attention is paid to the "human elements" that cause a loss to happen.

Perhaps the darker truth is that we haven't capitalized on the full potential of safety management efforts because we haven't known how to properly "gear them up" — to organize and "sell" them to oft-resistant workers in a way that achieves maximum benefit.

Failure to Launch
Tim Reis, Global Director Data Governance at The Manitowoc Company, thinks he knows why many programs struggle. Midway through the implementation of Manitowoc's five-year safety management system plan, Reis found that engaging employees in the roll-out effort was more critical to its success than initially believed.

"We spent two years putting good processes in place and establishing accountability," said Reis, adding that the success of additional stages of his safety management plan "will be dependent on our ability to make good processes excellent and our ability to engage employees."

Unfortunately, many companies discover Reis' lesson too late, having launched safety management programs without taking the necessary first steps to engage employees.

Predictable Resistance
Resistance to ill-conceived safety implementation plans is predictable. But until recently, the source of worker resistance has been a subject of intelligent guesswork. Anthony Lauchner, a senior project manager with McCarthy Building Companies, blames the independent nature of workers.

"I figure that guys whose independent attitude isn't accepted in other industries naturally gravitate to my industry," said Lauchner. "Historically, we've accepted them, allowing them to get away with an attitude that works against safety improvement."

The search for solutions to change-resistant workers has been prolific, if not futile. One operations manager even consulted a program for troubled youth to find guidance in handling workers he considered to be little more than grown-up juvenile delinquents.

Fortunately, we now know how specific temperamental, generational and cultural factors contribute to resistance in workers. This knowledge provides us with three strategies for starting successful safety management programs. Use of these strategies results in a deeper acceptance of safety efforts and reaps benefits far beyond simple worker compliance.

1. Overcome a Temperament of Resistance
Safety management programs should be geared to overcome the historical root cause of worker resistance: emotional apathy that breeds disloyalty.

Due in part to my extensive research of the personality traits and behavioral tendencies of change-resistant workers, we now know that the independent nature of workers is symptomatic of emotional withdrawal, not outward belligerence (as it might appear).

Nervousness, pessimism, indifference, inhibition and an argumentative nature are all traits for which resistant workers consistently rate themselves as needing improvement. These traits are indicative of an emotional hole into which workers retreat, escaping from emotional investment in the job or with coworkers.

Anthony Lauchner labels it a temporary work mentality. Others call it a penchant for disloyal behavior, the type that ruins safety management programs and is reflected in high personnel turnover rates.

While serving as project manager and safety liaison for Jacobs Facilities, Gary Douthitt witnessed the detrimental effects that the emotional hole had on his safety management system for project managers. When tasked with collaborating with contractors to identify safety hazards, Douthitt's managers didnt seem to care.

"It was easier for them to note conditions on their report and walk on rather than stop and deal with unsafe behaviors on the spot," said Douthitt.

As old fashioned as it sounds, building safety systems on care and compassion rather than command is the solution for bridging the emotional gap between workers and safety.

One way that owners and managers can demonstrate the compassion of safety management is obvious. "Don't fire workers when they take the time to do the job safely," says Lauchner. By exercising safety patience, he says, the company will convince the employee that safety management is a noteworthy emotional investment, equal to production.

Owners may also want to provide training that develops interpersonal communication skills to those responsible for the program's implementation. Gruff, authoritative communication only pushes workers further into emotional regression, away from safety management objectives.

2. Appeal to Generation Me
Consider the radical difference in values separating young workers from older ones when initiating a safety management program.

The egocentric nature of Generations X and Y, known collectively as Gen Me (approximately ages eighteen to thirty-five), represent serious obstacles to a safety program. According to reliable measures, narcissism, the unhealthy over-focus on self, is seven times higher in Gen Me as in previous generations.

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. of San Diego State University states in her book Generation Me, "Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves," adding, "I see no evidence that today's young people feel much attachment to duty or group cohesion."

In short, Gen Me does not naturally possess a mindset that lends itself to a collaborative safety management program.

To secure "buy in" from a generation not keen on placing the group's needs over the individuals, a safety program needs to harness the power of Gen Me's self-focus. Oddly, this can be achieved by appealing to the inflated sense of self-esteem they feel when networking socially.

Such networking abilities are crucial to the success of safety management. Toolbox talks, Job Safety Analyses (JSAs), and team incident investigations are a few of the safety management tools that are dependent upon good socialization skills. Due to the emotional withdrawal syndrome discussed earlier, older workers have been historically weak in this skill set.

Companies should target its present and future Gen Me leaders for special inclusion in the planning and implementation of safety management programs. This includes taking seriously their opinions on how to sell the program to other Gen Me workers as well as taking advantage of their technologically advanced interpersonal communication skills.

3. Capitalize on Present Cultural Change
In order for safety management to achieve maximum impact, safety managers should better accommodate the cultural sea change brought by an increasing number of Hispanic workers. The construction industry is one example of this influx.

According to a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Hispanic workers account for 24.4 percent of all construction workers (roughly 2.2 million workers). Two of every three construction new hires are Hispanic, and the percentage is expected to increase.

While most construction supervisors identify the language barrier as their primary cultural safety concern, my research indicates that the difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic on-the-job behavioral tendencies poses the greatest threat to the success of safety management programs.

Behavioral data I have collected from 750 non-Hispanic construction supervisors demonstrates that over 76 percent of those workers classify themselves as more task-oriented than people-oriented. On the other hand, Hispanic supervisors are equally more people-oriented than task-focused.

Project manager Lauchner agrees. "My non-Hispanic workers are more hard-driven, less forgiving than my Hispanic ones," he says. "By nature, Hispanics on my crews are equally hard workers but more willing to listen and be team players."

While the "steady Eddy" nature of Hispanic workers is well-suited to the goal of safety compliance, some feel their lack of aggressiveness is a liability. One owner of a drywall installation company told me that he wishes more Hispanics would naturally step into leadership roles because they are better at enforcing his company's safety message with other Hispanics.

Building proactive safety leadership qualities in Hispanics while educating non-Hispanics to the significant upside of their people skills, is a key to gearing up an all-inclusive safety management program. As with Gen Me, safety managers should target in advance key Hispanic line workers who can advise the company on how to best engage others in implementing the program. Training these workers with better leadership skills yields a safety return on investment that improves a significantly growing sector of America's industrial workforce.

A Perspective Long Overdue
Moving beyond the days of the wishful hopes of worker compliance demands a radical change to traditional safety management thinking. Generational, cultural and temperamental factors once given afterthought now stand as earmarks of whether a safety management system is fully engaging workers, thus reaching its peak potential.

Frank E. Bird, Jr., and George L. Germain, authors of Practical Loss Control Leadership, must have envisioned this day when they developed their famous loss causation model. They suggest that we examine two main categories to determine the basic causes of loss: job factors (systems and standards) and personal factors (humans).

After years of gearing up safety management programs that are focused primarily on systems and standards compliance, it is the personal factors of culture, age and personality that now show us a better way to achieve total safety.

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