Many people in the safety industry never had the luxury of getting an education in safety management or being groomed over time for a management position. For inexplicable reasons, companies continue to feel like safety management is just something they can assign to somebody regardless of that person’s experience. If you are one of those people, it is important that you understand that good safety management goes well beyond what the regulations state. Your safety program’s success will depend in large part on how you are able to communicate it, how you are able to enforce it, and the respect you command from the people working under the program. Be a pushover and the workforce will not fall in line, be a tyrant and they may violate policy just to spite you. Either way, your people will be at risk.
So how can you take your safety management beyond simply reciting the rules and hoping people will comply?
Know Your Limitations
As mentioned above, you need the respect of the people covered by the safety program in order to succeed. If they don’t respect you, they most likely will not heed your word. Sometimes, you can gain that respect by showing them you’ve walked in their shoes, and other times you can gain it by demonstrating your wealth of knowledge. Either way, you will need to avoid alienating yourself from them due to poor interpersonal communication.
As hard as it may be to gain the trust and respect of the workforce, realize that once you have it, it is very easy to lose it. Don’t make things up to sound smart, people have a good nose for nonsense and rather than come across looking smart, you’ll look condescending. They will feel that you believed they were too stupid to notice. Don’t guess at an answer. At best, you may be forced to correct yourself down the road, at worst, you may put somebody in danger. And, don’t ignore problems because you feel they are outside of your expertise. If something is unsafe, it must be dealt with. The question is: how do you deal with something that is beyond your knowledge and experience?
Simple. First, you need to admit that it is beyond your knowledge and experience. Believe it or not, nobody thinks you are perfect. People understand that there are a wide range of things a safety manager might encounter and it would be insane to think that you had experience with each and every one. Sometimes things come up that you are not comfortable with, so get help. If you are a health and safety expert and your company decides you need to also tackle its environmental issues, don’t try to “fake it until you make it”. In the time between faking and making, you could put people’s health and the environment in danger and potentially could cost your company thousands of dollars in violations. Enlist the help of an environmental consultant until you are knowledgeable enough to tackle things on your own. Likewise, if you find yourself needing to train your personnel in confined space, NFPA 70e, lockout/tagout, fall protection, or any other topic you might not be 100% familiar with, enlist help. There are many experts out there. The cost of their services is going to be much less than the cost of getting it wrong on your own.
Reinforce Good Behavior
Believe it or not, it doesn’t take a new truck or a fishing boat (actual incentive awards I’ve seen on projects) to encourage people to work safely. People like their hard work recognized. It’s human nature. However, something as simple “Great job” in front of a worker’s co-workers will go a long way. As I’ve always been taught, praise publicly, punish privately.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of constantly pointing out the negative. Safety managers’ mindsets, as inspectors, are trained toward finding what’s wrong. Somehow, these safety managers need to consciously shift their focus to also seek out the positive. And, it is there. There are good workers on every job. Find them. Praise them. Support them in any way you are able. But, also, don’t take this entire task on yourself. Enlist the rest of management. While it’s great for the workforce to get kudos from the safety manager, it’s powerful when the site superintendent, the project manager, the floor manager, the operations manager, or company executives recognize good workers. Ask them to take the time to find at least one person to compliment each time they are on the floor or in the field. This small gesture of praise and gratitude will go a long way.
Systemize Risk Assessment
Many companies don’t even formalize risk assessment, let alone systemize it. In many companies, the idea of stopping to look at a situation, discuss the hazards and potential controls, and document that discussion is alien. If risk assessment is even a topic of discussion, supervisors or their subordinates are expected to simply know what to do. This can have disastrous results.
Risk assessment needs to be both formal and systematic. Decide on the structure of the risk assessments you are going to require, then ensure that it is consistent across all departments, areas, or disciplines. Also, pick a time. Don’t leave it to chance that things will get done. Too often, emergencies, busy periods, laziness, or blatant disregard can ensure that assessments don’t get done, but when it is scheduled to be done at a certain time and place, it is easier for you to track and harder for the workforce to ‘forget’.
Also, train your employees how to properly assess risk, otherwise you may end up with time wasted producing documents that aren’t protecting anybody. Teach your employees to focus on the more frequent hazards or the ones that would have the most severe results first. For instance, while ergonomics are important, maybe it’s more important to address your fall protection issues first. If you work for a construction company, for example, you might choose to begin each assessment with a look at OSHA’s Focus Four – the four most frequent killers in construction (Electrical, Falls, Caught Between, Struck By) because they are likely to be the most frequent and most severe types of issues you’ll encounter.
These three tips are a good place to start if you’re just getting into a safety management role. At times, your position will be thankless. At times, you’ll meet resistance every step of the way. It will benefit you greatly to do whatever it takes to make your job easier. Treating the workforce with respect and earning their respect in return, is a huge first step. Each of the above tips will then help you take your approach one step further and help you produce a successful safety program.