Improving health and safety requires a change in thinking

Production often takes priority over safety

An organization looking to improve health and safety in the workplace needs to start with one important step: changing the way it thinks.

While many managers and senior leaders may declare that safety is a top priority, in day-to-day operations production is often “king.”

“The company may have a health and safety vision statement hanging on the wall, but what workers hear and are evaluated on is how much they produce and how fast they produce it,” said Dov Zohar, a visiting scientist at the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto.

The differences between what a company says, what it actually does daily and how workers perceive the “true value” placed on safety is what’s known as safety climate. To improve health and safety in a workplace, organizations must have a more positive safety climate. And that requires a revolution in thinking.

“Companies should not be focusing their organization’s safety goals on ‘zero injuries.’ You may operate for many years without having a single incident, but still not have good safety practices,” Zohar said. “Instead, companies need to look at measures of safety climate — what they do that creates and promotes a healthy and safe workplace.”

Tracking lost-time injuries is still important but shouldn’t be the sole focus. To measure safety climate, managers need solid safety data that is as rigorous as the data collected on productivity, efficiency and quality. It falls into the theory of “what gets measured gets managed,” said Zohar.

The measures should answer questions such as:

•How frequently do supervisors mention safety to workers?

•Are the messages consistent?

•Do managers acknowledge, recognize and reward workers’ safe behaviour?

The measurement and feedback must be as immediate as the delivery of feedback on productivity.

Zohar has conducted research into safety climate in a number of industrial companies and health-care sector facilities in Israel, the United States and Canada. His research examined the changed behaviours that result from pursuing a safety climate, and demonstrated that these improvements aren’t just quick fixes and can be sustained over a long period of time.

The key is management support for this change and the level of importance upper management places on safety in the company.

“Improving safety climate will only work if management ‘walk the talk.’ They have to show employees they are committed to this change,” said Zohar. “First-line supervisors and workers have to see that management attends to safety performance as much as speed and quality. When they do, their safety performance changes accordingly.”

Rewarding safe behaviour is another key ingredient to improving safety climate, he said. There needs to be visible, frequent, relevant and immediate incentives for safe conduct. Safety needs to be part of the ongoing conversation in a workplace — not just mentioned at a weekly or monthly meeting.

Frequency is important to counteract workers acting unsafely, Zohar said. Acting safely can take more time, extra effort and may involve personal discomfort. If workers feel a company’s true priority is how fast they work, or they know they are rewarded for the number of widgets coming off the line, acting unsafely can be a very rational decision, he said.

With management support, it is possible to override this rational behaviour. Supervisors need to constantly include safety in their interactions with workers.

“Supervisors’ recognition and feedback ranks among the most powerful incentives for workers,” said Zohar. “If this recognition is frequent and consistent, you will promote a positive safety climate.”

Dee Kramer is a knowledge transfer associate with the Institute for Work and Health, a non-profit health and safety group based in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 927-2027 ext. 2146, [email protected] or

How to make supervisors safety ambassadors

•Engage top management as an active field player.

•Measure process indicators of safety as often as efficiency or quality are measured.

•Redefine the role of line managers so safety is one of their key performance indicators.

•Ensure safety is mentioned by supervisors as often as productivity or quality.

•Have supervisors regularly acknowledge and reward safety.

•Survey workers regularly on how often supervisors interact with them on safety.

•Provide training and coaching to supervisors on supportive behaviour.

•Benchmark supervisors and set goals for improvement. Make this goal setting part of ongoing supervisor training.

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