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3 Mixed Safety Messages You Might Be Sending

Pensive metal worker standing in aluminum mill.

Poor company culture and lack of employee engagement are common complaints among businesses in every industry. And with good reason as studies suggest that approximately 70 percent of people aren’t invested in their jobs. With the recent pandemic shifting the focus of many businesses away from issues like improving company culture, the unresolved feelings that workers had regarding their employers may be combined with a mix of fear and various human factors that will affect the way they perform in their jobs. 

Now more than ever, organizations are at risk of sending unclear or mixed safety messages to their employees. Here are three of the biggest ways that safety messaging can go sideways.

“Safety is #1”

Safety needs to be reflected through actions, and not just words. Putting a sign up that says, “Safety First” is not enough. Most companies say this, but for some, it comes across as lip service rather than actual practice. Instead of relying on slogans, organizations should take a hard look at what sort of messages their actions are communicating.

Companies that are not prepared or equipped with appropriate PPE, especially in the face of an emergency, are sending the message that the lives of their employees don’t matter or at least that the company isn’t very proactive in looking out for them. Similarly, causing employees to rush in order to get work done will say that management values productivity more than safety. 

Too many times, safety is seen as an added cost, and many companies use a lack of budget as an excuse for not investing in training and safety measures. But organizations should be aware that when they do this, it can often lead to a decrease in employee engagement, which can have a negative effect on the bottom line. In many cases, it’s more profitable to invest in safety upfront rather than pay the price down the road. It will save more lives too. And bear in mind that the longer it’s been since your last worker-visible investment in safety, the more your safety-first mantra will seem inconsistent and insincere.

“We want safety feedback” …but then don’t listen or act on it

The fastest way to disengage your team is to ask employees for safety feedback and then do nothing to change or follow it up. When workers take the time to craft a response, they think long and hard about the information they are providing in hopes that a resolution will come from them putting themselves out there. In an environment where fear is at an all-time high, it’s important to acknowledge the feedback in a way that is non-threatening or dismissive.

Fear of retaliation is a hard thing to overcome. If you have managed to establish enough trust that employees respond to your request honestly, then not acting on that information may destroy any credibility you once held. Poor communication between departments is a common complaint in most businesses and it starts at the top. Try to clearly communicate each level’s responsibility within the company so every person knows where they fit and what is expected of them. 

Next, have meetings (whether they’re in the form of toolbox talks, individual/small group meetings or larger department/company meetings) and give everyone the opportunity to be heard. By listening and following through on feedback, a trust will be created between workers and the company. Employees want to feel like they matter, and fostering a sense of belonging and trust will lead to increased morale, productivity, quality and profitability. A common form of feedback is injury and near-miss reports which are hard to get from employees when trust isn’t established.

“We encourage employees to report near-misses and injuries” …but then punish them for it

Sometimes, when employees report an injury or close call, they are disciplined for breaking a safety rule. The two things are not mutually exclusive. While it is perfectly legal for an employer to discipline workers for misconduct, relevant OSHA statutes may form a grey area in some situations that could be interpreted as retaliation. And you have to be very careful in determining whether the worker’s actions were actually deliberate or unintentional and what other factors in the system may have contributed 

It is an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace. If an employee reports an injury due to unsafe working conditions, the employer cannot punish or fire the employee if that injury leads to an OSHA claim. When employees don’t know their rights and are fearful of dismissal, the company’s safety culture—and results—are bound to suffer. Without clear communication, workers will be unsure of how seriously their employer actually takes safety. 

Good record keeping cannot stop accidents from happening but it can stop the same incidents from recurring if it leads you to evaluate the safety procedures and training related to the incident. Employees do not hurt themselves on purpose; there may be an underlying reason as to why they are in the situation. Keep the lines of communication open and non-threatening. A little empathy can go a long way to establishing the trust needed for a safe workplace.

As workers grapple with how to navigate the workplace amidst the pandemic, they want to know they’re safe, they’re being heard and they’re free to report a close call in the workplace. We all want our employees to go home the same way they arrived at work but if you truly care then you’ll want them to return to work safely every day as well. Since there’s more risk off the job, give them knowledge, skills, through training that can help them stay safe driving, at home, in the community, as well as on the job. If companies make good-faith efforts to resolve the mixed-messaging they’re sending, it might help employees eliminate not only the fear they’re experiencing inside their workplace but to the outside world as well. 

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