Safety In, Safety Out

The push for COR certification has construction companies across Canada paying extra attention to their safety culture.

Many construction companies have learned that what was acceptable in the past is no longer good enough to get the jobs they once had. Contracts with government and even large general contractors are on the line. While companies are feeling the urgency to invest in improvements to their safety culture before it’s too late, their challenge is prioritizing safety initiatives to get the highest return on their investment.

Every safety leader knows increasing employee participation in safety activities improves safety outcomes, but most still struggle to execute on the right initiatives that lead to an exemplary safety culture. Through research based on over 250 million data points over a three-year period, eCompliance discovered that safety cultures tend to fall into one of four categories:

  • Low Compliance Culture: Hazards rarely manifest into incidents, so safety is not top of mind for most employees or management. They are likely in a low-risk and low-compliance workplace, like an office;
  • Reactive Culture: These companies tend to encourage employees to participate after an incident happens. For example, someone trips in the office and everyone does a desk check. But that’s the only safety activity they do all year;
  • Task Force Culture: Safety is strictly enforced, but the safety activities are primarily done by the safety team (task force). Workers and supervisors are not empowered or involved. This may result in an “us versus them” mentality where the safety team is considered the Safety Cops;
  • High Participation Culture: Leadership extends beyond the safety department. It’s exhibited by all employees, with a high velocity of activity. All employees seek out risk and work proactively to eliminate it.

The study found that the top safety teams empower their frontline supervisors and foremen to perform key safety tasks like inspections, hazard reporting and toolbox talks, leaving safety teams to focus on triaging risk and executing on risk reduction activities. As a result, companies in the top quartile of employee safety participation reduced incident rates by more than 3.5 times their low participation peers. Yet while all construction safety leaders agree that their end-goal is a High Participation Culture, many companies get stuck on this journey.

Barriers to Building a High Participation Culture

Over a period of four months, qualitative interviews were conducted with companies in the study and it was discovered that companies with top quartile participation and leading safety outcomes go through five steps to build a High Participation Safety Culture:

  1. CEO Commitment: The CEO makes a sincere and public commitment to safety;
  2. The Rise of the Safety Leader: The CEO publicly backs the safety leader, giving them the organizational credibility to drive the change management;
  3. Employee Buy-in: The safety leader gets front-line employees to recognize that their participation keeps themselves and their peers safe, while helping the company succeed economically;
  4. Safety Reflex: Leadership reacts and acts on the new risk data from the new activities. They execute risk reduction activities and communicate back to the front-line in a timely fashion;
  5. Safety Velocity: The organization scales activities. The safety team analyzes areas of high-risk and their time is prioritized to reduce risk at a high velocity.

Companies typically flag several roadblocks along this path, the most common being Safety Reflex. Imagine this scenario: the CEO of a construction company announces that safety is now their number one priority. They hire a great safety leader who is able to get employee buy-in to implement a new system to report hazards. Now, let’s say a labourer at this company notices damaged equipment. He reports this hazard to his supervisor. One of two things can happen from here: the unsafe equipment gets fixed in a timely fashion; or it doesn’t.

If the equipment gets fixed right away and the safety team communicates their praise to the labourer for participating, he is empowered to do it a second and third time. He sees the time he’s committing is actually benefiting him. He will tell coworkers about it, increasing the likelihood that others will identify and report on risk.

Conversely, if nobody follows up with him and the equipment remains broken for a few days, the employee loses faith that his activities will lead to a positive outcome. He will stop taking time out of his day for the new hazard reporting initiative. He is also likely to tell his coworkers about his negative experience. “Safety is just a tagline. Management doesn’t actually care about our safety.” This renders all the previous change management work obsolete. This mentality can spread like a virus, poisoning your safety culture.

Doing Safety Reflex the Right Way

Let’s take another look at the scenario with the damaged equipment. Why didn’t it get fixed? It is doubtful that management was lazy, forgetful, or negligent. It is more likely they weren’t prepared to deal with the sudden influx of safety-related work. The challenge in Safety Reflex is the safety team might have previously received only one hazard report per week, but they’re now receiving 10 per day.

The safety leaders will get stuck with a pile of paperwork on their desk, stalling their drive for a high participation safety culture if they don’t have a system to get information from the labourer to themselves in a timely manner, or a process to triage the risk, communicate back to the front-line and execute on risk reduction activities. Safety Reflex is one of the most crucial parts of building a High Participation Safety Culture. The simple act of a manager responding to an employee is as important as any training program, slogan, or safety leader.

This doesn’t happen overnight. Some of the companies studied systematically rolled out their new safety initiatives in a narrow group, like one department or job site at a time. They implemented it, found the bugs, made the fixes, and learned how to roll things out more effectively across the entire company. But don’t be naïve or complacent; these efforts can be undone at any point, if employees start to believe their actions and efforts are being ignored by management.

There is no doubt that building a High Participation Safety Culture requires a company-wide shift. The frontline needs to be actively engaged, management needs the ability to send timely responses to the frontline, and safety leaders need the appropriate tools and systems for that communication to take place. The good news is that it’s easier than you think if you have the right strategy, leadership and tools to succeed. If any of those things are lagging behind, you might find yourself stuck and unable to improve safety.

Josh Lebrun is president and COO of eCompliance, a software developer focused on worker safety.

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