How your employees’ perception of safety impacts your culture and productivity Featured

1:12pm EDT February 1, 2012
How your employees’ perception of safety impacts your culture and productivity

There are many benefits to having a safe culture. Safety leads to more productivity. It has a physical effect on employee morale. But one aspect that is inherent in nearly every organization is a difference between the reality and the perception of what is done for safety.

“If there are no injuries, employers may feel it is a safe organization,” says Jonathan Theders, president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency. “But the perception doesn’t always match the reality.”

Smart Business spoke with Theders about how to improve company safety and ensure that your employees’ perception of workplace safety matches the reality.

How can you gauge employees’ perception of safety?

There is one key way to gauge perception: Survey on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be extensive. Some surveys have 500 questions, some have 10. The whole purpose of the survey is to have everybody be a part of the culture of safety, to realize that it is important.

You can have the greatest safety manual in the world, but if it is not being implemented on a day-to-day basis, or not being followed, it’s really just collecting dust on a shelf. By gauging the entire work force, you are getting employees involved in the process. Set a benchmark for where the company stands now, and as you move forward, do an annual assessment of how the business has matured.

With today’s technology, surveying is an easy and inexpensive way for a company to gauge its safety practices.

How can surveys help you improve safety?

People focus on the injury rate, OSHA logs and workers’ compensation injuries, but those are always lagging. They have already occurred. They’re good to discuss because you have to talk about them to prevent them from happening again. But a survey is more of a leading indicator. It can help you look proactively and see potential holes in a safety program before the injury occurs.

How can surveys affect employee perception of safety?

Often, management struggles with the implementation of safety practices due to breakdowns between management and frontline workers. Get them involved in the process. Allowing them to draw up problems makes them part of the solution.

If you establish a committee for surveying safety in a company, it has to be a cross-section of employees. You need management and front line workers to create buy-in. If your work force is unionized, you need someone from the union, as well.

Allow the people who historically are resistant to change to become part of the solution, and the buy-in will be a lot easier and results will be better.

People think committees slow things down. Although the beginning may be slower, the implementation is always quicker than it would be with a decree from management because you have a broad spectrum of people working together. If a plan comes down with an iron fist, people may be resistant, even if it is a good idea.

When you receive feedback, how can you incorporate that into your safety plan?

Let’s say you have a benchmark of a score from one to 10 and the average score on a particular area is four. That tells you two things. First, it’s the perception of the employees that this area isn’t as important to the company as it should be. If it was, they would have marked it a 10. Second, it says there is a hunger for it because they rated it low. They still want it. So the survey’s feedback is twofold. It draws out what your employees believe and what they are asking for because it is important to them.

Employers should take that feedback and say to employees, ‘We scored low on this area — how do we score higher?’ That allows groups to become actively engaged in solutions.

What impact can a favorable perception of safety have on the workplace?

Safety is a hard thing to measure. Especially in today’s world, where people try to measure the justification for everything, safety is atypical. It is not as black and white as, ‘I do this and get that,’ but the alternative — not focusing on it — can cost companies hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in the short and long term.

If you improve safety and the perception of safety, you will see huge improvements in morale and productivity. When people are safer, they are less prone to get injured, they are feeling good about their jobs, that their employer cares about them and their safety. They will work better, smarter and harder for you.

When a worker injury occurs, many employers say, ‘I had one workers’ compensation claim and then they all started coming out of the woodwork.’ Maybe there is a degree where people learn the system. But workers’ compensation claims happen when people are tired, are doing something they are not familiar with, or there are unsafe work practices. If one person gets injured, that job still needs to get done. The next people who do it may not be as familiar with it. They will get it done but may have to put in more time. As a result, they are more tired and stressed, working on not enough rest. They’re not concentrating as well as they could be, and boom — they get hurt.

The trickle keeps funneling down and it can have a huge impact. Your goal should be prevention of the first claim, because if you can prevent the first one, you may be preventing many claims that would follow.

Jonathan Theders is president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. Reach him at (513) 779-2800 or jtheders@ctia.com.