Making safety best practices work

April 9, 2021
Making and enforcing rules is a critical aspect of any shop safety program.
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In the day-to-day operation of our businesses, we all want to get through the work week without someone on our team or ourselves suffering an injury. Workplace injuries are tremendously costly on multiple levels, so shop owners are often looking for ways to limit the possibility of their folks getting hurt. Oftentimes, this involves the establishment of safety best practices — the rules that guide our daily work routine. If the employees then adopt the best practices, most injuries can be prevented.

If only it were that simple. Creating a rule is one thing; getting everyone to follow it is another. The sad truth is that many workplace injuries and fatalities take place as a result of safety rules being broken. This is a never-ending source of frustration for shop owners and insurance companies alike. On the one hand, we seem to take solace in our ritual of creating rules, but we are often disappointed in the outcomes. Where is the disconnect between a worker’s acknowledgement that they understand what they are supposed to do and how it plays out on the shop floor?

Let's be clear: there is no getting around the idea that we need safety rules. All workers must have a mental framework so they can understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable ways of getting jobs done. Our challenge is helping the workers to decide that the rules are good for them. This is no easy feat, but with some self-examination and communication, the foundation can be put in place for your shop to stay safe while maximizing profitability.

Are you serious?

Before going any further, the shop owner needs to give an honest answer to a tough question:

Do you believe that you are better off when your employees follow the rules?

If your answer is anything less than an unequivocal yes, we have discovered why your safety program is struggling. As the business owner, you set the tone for how the program is administered, and it cannot succeed without your full commitment. Your employees are looking to see if you are serious, and if you are not, they aren’t going to take safety rules seriously either.

I would encourage you to embrace the idea that safety requires an investment and there is an undeniable return on investment that will help you and your employees prosper. Some business people do not believe this; their fear is that an emphasis on safety will only lead to increased costs and reduced productivity. In fact, this fear leaves some in a quandary in which they compose safety rules to pacify their insurance company and/or government regulators but then enforce them loosely or not at all.

Let’s face it — the safety/productivity question is a classic balancing act. Safety measures often appear to slow the workflow and can trigger frustration with those who are trying to get the job done. Whether you are an individual worker or a shop owner, it is clear that safety isn’t free and could demand increased amounts of money, time, and/or effort. This can feel like a black hole of wasted resources unless you take into account ALL of the costs associated with an employee getting hurt or killed. At that point, your investment looks like a pretty good deal, and you see clearly the wisdom in establishing and enforcing safety rules in your company's workplace.

Making it work

So, you as the shop owner have made the commitment to fortify your company’s safety culture. This will undoubtedly involve the implementation of safety rules, and the real task has now begun. How do you win over the employees in your shop, especially the ones that have been around for a long time?

Two words of wisdom that come to mind right away are patience and consistency. First off, the building and maintenance of your safety program will never be complete, so prepare your mind right away for the long haul. As they say in the barbeque world, “slow cooking is the best cooking.” Any lasting and meaningful change of your company safety culture will take place over a longer period of time.

Another key principle is consistent administration of the program. Work towards being even-handed with all of your decisions to demonstrate a stable and reliable enforcement pattern. Consistency also means that you are willing to follow the rules yourself. You can rest assured that your employees will be watching your behavior and if you aren’t following the rules that you say are important, you’ve completely shot yourself in the foot.

So, what means should be used to convince your workforce to follow the rules? I would suggest that you take a multi-faceted approach, because there will be a range of personalities and learning styles among the folks that work for you. Here are the three primary administrative tools that should be utilized when designing your safety program:

  • Penalties (sticks)
  • Incentives (carrots)
  • Education

Putting safety rules in place implies that there will be consequences for not following them. This aspect of your safety program can be painful to enact because it involves confrontation — something that many people do not want to deal with. It is a necessary function, however, because the unfortunate truth is that there are workers out there who don't understand anything else.

Disciplinary measures will most often start with verbal warnings, progress to written warnings, and can eventually lead to dismissal of an employee who is not willing to adjust their behavior. Flagrant offenses may warrant immediate termination. Through it all, documentation of the process is crucial to ensure justice to all parties and a means of defending yourself in case of any further regulatory or legal action.

Penalties are obviously designed to address the breaking of rules using negative consequences. However, relying too heavily on “sticks” to convince the workers to follow the rules can foster superficial compliance. The moment you aren’t looking, they are just as likely to go back to their old ways. You don’t have the time or energy to be a babysitter, so you need to encourage a mindset where your employees will make good safety decisions whether their supervisor is present or not.

I’ll say it again: Penalties are necessary but still distasteful. As the saying goes, “You will catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar,” so emphasizing incentives (carrots) in your safety administration plan makes a lot of sense.

Incentives do not have to be extravagant. For example, they may be as simple as a modest quarterly bonus if shop safety goals are met. I suggest that the focus be placed on collective awards; in other words, everyone receives the same level of reward when the target is achieved. Conversely, everyone also experiences the same disappointment when goals aren’t met and the bonus is reduced or not paid out at all. What is being reinforced here is that safety is everyone’s responsibility, and all members of the organization need to work together to help each other prosper by staying safe.

The most important piece of the puzzle is education. It certainly isn’t revolutionary for someone to say that employees need safety training, but it still begs the question as to the scope of the training we provide. My personal experience is that we are quite good at telling our employees what the rules are and the consequences for breaking the rules. However, there are two areas that we often fail to address:

  1. Why following the rules is good for them
  2. Mindset and how it has everything to do with their personal safety

Nurturing a safety mindset

The reason we don’t address the issue of why the rules are good for the workers is because we assume the answer is self-evident. Follow the rules; you won’t get hurt and you’ll keep your job, right? Our thinking is that the possibility of getting hurt or losing your job is sufficient to keep folks on the straight and narrow path. This approach has limited effect because of the human tendency to drift towards complacency. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them, and this is reinforced every time they get away with a rules infraction.

Employee safety training should include a reality check on what workplace injuries really cost. Be clear that nobody ever wants to see someone get hurt, but if you’re wondering why we are committing so much time and energy to safety, it is because we're trying to control costs. While a workplace injury is tremendously costly to the company, the emphasis should be placed on what it will cost the employee and their family if they get hurt. This part of the discussion should include the physical and emotional costs in addition to the financial. A better grasp of the “big picture” will help every employee understand the importance of the issue and their personal responsibility in making the shop as safe as possible.

Introspection is the key to effective safety training. By introspection, I mean helping the worker gain a greater awareness of their own thinking. Two major cognitive errors are often culprits in workplace incidents: complacency and a self-imposed sense of urgency. Every worker should be introduced to these concepts and given an opportunity to examine how they might play a role in their personal work practice. The point here is that your employee is being equipped to make better safety decisions in the absence of supervision.

Prosperity through safety

Making and enforcing rules is a critical aspect of any shop safety program. While both penalties and incentives need to be established, expanding the safety education of your employees will enhance the positive aspects of the program and increase ownership at all levels. Ultimately, this will lead to greater prosperity for you and your employees.

About the Author

Tony Martin

Tony Martin is the author of “Tuning In to Safety,” a book written to help workers get their priorities straight in regards to safety. He taught automotive and diesel technology at the post-secondary level for 17 years (1996-2013).

He is a graduate of the Canadian Interprovincial (Red Seal) Apprenticeship system and received his qualification as a Heavy Duty Equipment Mechanic in 1989. While he currently works as a mobile equipment maintenance trainer in the mining industry in Fairbanks, Alaska, he has operated a mobile repair business, worked in chemical plants, refineries, a liquefied natural gas plant, and offshore oil platforms.

He holds an A.A.S. in Diesel Technology and a B.S. in Technology Education from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

He can be reached at [email protected].

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