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By: Thomas Carson

Empower and Engage

What’s new in “new”? I recently re-read the interview with Jeff Dalto in the Professional Safety Journal (2022, June: New Views of Safety). It was a good summary of the various “new” philosophies of safety thought such as HOP, HPI, Safety II, and “safety differently.” Essentially, these “latest” thoughts boil down to 2 areas:

  1. The need to create environments for better organizational and operational learning
  2. How to include employees in the conversation in a meaningful, genuine way

OBSERVATION 1: Same Song Different Verse
My first observation is that many of these new concepts are not entirely new. There is a reason that many of the safety standards that have been promulgated in the past from ANSI, ISO, OSHA, and others have so much in common: there are a handful of core precepts that we know deliver results if applied seriously. These fundamental “musts” are as follows:

  1. Employees must be engaged in risk identification and mitigation solutions
  2. All levels of management must be genuinely and visibly committed to the programs
  3. Programs must be adequately funded
  4. All stakeholders’ interests must be considered.

The Sticking Point
I wonder if the reason we continue to seek new program variants is because it is challenging to effectively execute these fundamentals. On the surface, you wouldn’t think this should be hard, but we all have biases, emotions, and experiences that get in the way of the most basic collaboration.

A personal experience that has left an enormous impression on me to this day comes to mind as a good example. Many decades ago while in school, I had a part-time job driving a charter bus for Continental Trailways. While on a trip through North Carolina, I came out one morning to start my bus loaded with passengers and it would not move. I couldn’t select any gear and 42 passengers were growing increasingly agitated. I called the company and learned it was going to take them the better part of a day to send help. Young, frustrated, and feeling a touch of panic, a grizzled old guy pulled up in a truck older than he was and asked if he could help. I am ashamed to say that I was dismissive when I said, “Sure – you can tell me why my bus won’t move.” Well, fortunately for me, this old guy shook off my attitude, dug around in the back for about 10 minutes, and then came up and asked me to try it. It worked! Turns out the fellow used to be a bus mechanic, recognized a systemic problem with this particular model right away and knew how to fix it. I took away several lessons that day, but the most important was that everyone has something to teach—if we are just willing to learn.

Why do I share this? Because the trick for companies to get unstuck and move forward is to institutionalize employee engagement. It’s not enough for management to simply declare an objective. Lasting change will occur when all employees feel invited and welcomed into the conversation about how to make the workplace safer and more productive. It is not management, but those closest to the work who most often can see where things get stuck. They are the spokes in the hub that will move things forward. They will also feel more empowered and trusted by management, making them feel better about their jobs and more loyal to the company.

In my story, my mechanic/rescuer was unique – fortunately for me, he volunteered his knowledge without waiting to be asked. In the case of business, hope and luck are not a sustainable approach. You can’t expect employees to pitch in ideas if you come to them with fait accompli programs they must implement. The key to managing an effective program for continual improvement across an organization is to develop effective communication and feedback. You must continually remind employees that they are a valued part of the solution and that you genuinely depend on them as they depend on each other.

OBSERVATION 2: Just Good Business
My second observation is that employee empowerment and engagement are not just good for safety, they’re good for business. Increasing the effectiveness of safety programs is largely about nurturing employees to work collaboratively to improve their environment and processes. It turns out that the safety program is a particularly well-suited platform for developing those skills, but the skills themselves generalize well to broad system and process improvements.

Regardless of which specific safety improvement philosophy you choose to embrace, at the heart of all of them is inviting your employees to share what they know, and harnessing that knowledge to make safer, more productive and more sustainable workplaces.

The bottom line is we need to change our thinking about modern safety because top-down initiatives don’t last. The greatest impact begins and ends with employee engagement. If we first get employees actively engaged, they will not only help develop the best solutions, but they will also become increasingly engaged to make sure the changes last. When employees are recognized as stakeholders, empowered to make a difference, they will continue to do so.

About Sospes
Our company was founded on the idea of making safety software that is so easy-to-learn and simple-to-use that employees actually use it. When this happens, management gets data that reveals truths about their operations and workers’ environments, allowing them to take informed steps that improve safety, satisfaction, productivity, and profitability. We’re experienced helping companies engage their employees. Connect with us and let’s see if we can help you too.

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