Walk the talkWritten by Mari-Len De Guzman 18 November 2008
When it comes to influencing workers to behave safely, leaders need to show them how it’s done. Recent studies have shown a direct link between workers’
perception of the priority their leaders place on safety and their attitude
towards working safely.
“If employees believe that the senior managers think safety is important, they tend to behave more safely,” says Mark Fleming, an associate professor with the Department of Psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax.
Since the mid-90s Fleming has been conducting research in safety leadership, looking at the practices of supervisors and managers that influence the behaviour of their subordinates.
Workers look to their leaders to set the priority and if they see that safety is not part of the priority, they tend to view it as less important as well, Fleming says.
“The basic framework that we’re using is that when you are a worker, you’ve got lots of different priorities (such as) production demands, quality demands. And nobody is saying that safety is not important, it’s just that it’s relative to other priorities,” he says.
Management sets the priorities and if all leaders talk about are production and achieving production targets, then workers assume that is what’s important and everything else, including health and safety, are irrelevant.
Because safety tends to be intermittent by nature, coming up only when an incident happens, managers need to be more aggressive in pushing the issue of safety to the workforce.
One way of being proactive, says Fleming, is by being consistently visible to the employees through regular walks around the floor and talking to employees about safety.
“So instead of being reactive, they are more proactive about the process,” he says.
Fleming was among a group of psychology professors at St. Mary’s University who founded the CN Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Halifax, a CN Rail-funded research organization focused on studies that identify best practices for creating safe and healthy workplaces.
Psychology being his field of expertise, Fleming says much of the issues associated with workplace safety have more to do with how workers behave and think, than the mechanical devices and safeguards in place to protect workers.
A recent high-profile example was the case against Transpave Inc., the first company convicted and sentenced under the Bill C-45 amendments to the Criminal Code. A young Transpave employee died after getting crushed by heavy machinery. Investigators later found the company allowed the worker to operate the machinery despite a deactivated safety mechanism.
This kind of tragic story is almost too familiar in many workplace incidents.
“When I was just starting to do some graduate work, I was at a presentation about a big oil and gas explosion off the North Sea which killed 167 people. As I was listening to the causes of that (incident) it became very obvious that this happened because people didn’t do what they were supposed to do. All the engineering systems in the world can’t protect people in that setting. That is fundamentally a psychological issue, not an engineering issue,” Fleming explains.
This is where leadership comes in. When management makes a commitment to workplace safety, it is important to understand why people do the things they do, then use that knowledge to guide them in making better decisions, he says.
Safety over production
Petro-Canada is one of those companies that put value on workers’ input in achieving safety excellence.
In fact, employee engagement is one of seven key success factors for attaining its Zero Harm philosophy, says Greta Raymond, vice-president for environment, safety and social responsibility for the Calgary-based oil and gas firm.
“Zero Harm is our philosophy that means we believe all work-related injuries and illnesses are foreseeable and preventable,” Raymond says.
Leadership visibility is also a vital component of Zero Harm’s success. It is demonstrating to employees that their leaders are spending time out on the floor, concerning themselves about safety, and not sitting in their offices thinking about budgets and production, Raymond says.
There are a few ways leaders can demonstrate the importance of safety to employees.
When supervisors and managers tell their staff that safety is as important or more important than production, they have to ensure that they are spending equal amounts of time talking about safety as they do discussing production with workers, Raymond suggests.
If one aspect of work is unsafe or poses a risk to worker safety, the supervisor or manager should be able to make the decision of stepping back and thinking things through even if it means slowing down production.
“That’s very powerful when (workers) actually see leaders making that choice,” Raymond says.
When workers raise issues about safety, their leaders need to listen and follow through, she adds.
Petro-Canada looks to its leaders as the foremost proponents of safety culture. Part of instituting the Zero Harm culture across the organization, leaders undergo a full-day course that details the company’s expectations of their leaders as Zero Harm advocates, through role playing and case studies.
Since its creation in 2003, Petro-Canada’s Zero Harm initiative has resulted in huge reductions in its total recordable injury rate, from 1.54 in 2003 to .75 in 2008. The total recordable injury rate is the number of events or injuries that require medical treatment per 200,000 hours worked, both by employees and contractors.
“We really have changed the culture of the organization,” Raymond says.
(Next: Safety from the top)