What's a New Safety Manager to Do?

FOR a new safety manager, there are many options to consider while putting together a program. Safety philosophies and methodologies, as well as commercial promotions for safety incentives and motivators, can be utilized in a program to complement a safety culture.

One of the first concepts the new manager may struggle to embrace is between the behavioral and engineering approaches to safety. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. On one end are the behaviorists, who blame the worker without considering the equipment used or the environment in which it is used, ignoring how these factors and work systems affect behavior. George Robotham says during his 25-year career as an occupational health and safety adviser in Australia, "In few cases has a person's behavior been the primary contributor to the incident." In his opinion, approaching the investigation with an open mind leads to the discovery of many non-behavioral factors that can be used to positively influence change.1 At the opposite end of the spectrum are advocates of the engineering approach: There are many positive engineering changes an employer can make (e.g., adding a non-slip coating to a smooth steel-troweled concrete walkway) that would have greater impact than exhortations of "be careful."

Both of these approaches to safety have merit. The wise manager recognizes them and uses them interchangeably, as the need demands (Robotham). Demonstrated results show that with the proper methodology, safety can be improved (Krause)2. So which methodology is best?

Contrary to Robotham's opinion, there are many more advocates of behavior-based safety. According to Thomas R. Krause, "although people who favor hardware and engineering fixes sometimes mistake the behavioral approach as being too soft, there is a great deal of hard-headed accountability built into employee-driven safety."3 Among the many definitions of BBS, Krause believes the best is "an integrated, interdisciplinary activity drawing not only from applied behavior analysis, but from quality management, organization development, and safety and risk management."4

In addition to the decision on using BBS, engineering controls, or a combination of the two, a safety manager must wade through the cultures of not only safety, but also of the corporation of which s/he is a part. The corporate culture is usually based on a blend of visionary ideas, with the dominating culture of the organization supported by ongoing analyses of organizational systems, goal-directed behavior, attitudes, and performance outcomes (Fry and Killing)5.

Even though there is no universal definition of corporate culture, it usually refers to shared behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and values regarding an organization's goals, functions, and procedures. Because there are disputes as to whether there truly are shared values, beliefs, and behaviors, corporate culture is heterogeneous, not homogeneous (Williams)6. There may be a dominant cultural theme (e.g., quality, safety), but the way in which it manifests itself will vary (Cooper)7.

'Safety Culture' and Psychology's Influence
The term "safety culture" first appeared in the 1987 OECD Nuclear Agency report on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster (INSAG)8. Safety culture is a subcomponent of corporate culture alluding to job and organizational features that affect and influence safety and health. It does not operate in a vacuum; it affects and is affected by other operational processes or organizational systems (Cooper)9.

Building on the thoughts above are the evolving paradigms of psychology. The behaviorist paradigm dominated American psychology during the 1950s and 1960s. According to behaviorists, what goes on "inside" a person, such as thoughts and feelings, is and inappropriate subject for scientific research. Instead, the focus was on observable behavior and how it controlled external consequences.10

Yet in the 1960s, Bandura showed this paradigm is unable to explain much human behavior. His argument was that humans often adjust their behavior based on what others did and any consequence that followed. He termed this "observational learning" and showed it is anticipated consequences (what they think will happen) that actually controls humans' behavior. This thinking capability is termed "cognitive processes" by psychologists.

The 1970s brought the "cognitive revolution" in psychology. Currently, this is the dominant paradigm in psychology. Even Krause's most recent writings (he is co-founder and CEO of Behavioral Science Technology Inc.) emphasize "employee engagement." He defines "engagement" using cognitive concepts: intellectual, emotional, creative, and psychological connection.

On which side of this debate will the new safety manager land?Cognitive psychology is a broad field, and not everything it offers will be of value in behavioral safety. The safety manager will have to prudently apply new thinking. So far, BBS has demonstrated a positive track record in injury prevention.

Wellness Programs
As we continue to build on the various options available to the safety manager, we include the facets of incentives and motivators. With increasing health costs and work-related injuries on the corporate landscape, prevention programs become a necessity rather than a luxury.

People who exercise are healthier, get sick less often, and take fewer sick days. Some large corporations including the Pepsi Co., whose wellness programs have been in place for almost 50 years, have achieved greater productivity and decreased absenteeism, resulting in health care dollars saved. Wellness programs are not only helping companies save money; they are becoming an increasingly attractive benefit that can lure potential employees.11

Some fascinating views of wellness programs are being expressed. An article in Safety + Health magazine suggested skills taught by the martial arts are being discovered by employers to improve safety and health in the workplace. Based on the concept taught in martial arts' training of inner awareness, results include mental discipline, concentration, physical balance, coordination, flexibility, leverage, and relaxation.12 B.K. Frantzis, founder of Energy Arts in Fairfax, Calif., also emphasizes the benefits of martial arts in improving work-place safety and health. Frantzis says the best way to prevent the types of injuries found among white-collar workers (repetitive in nature; arms, wrists, and hands) is maintaining flexibility in the tendons, joints, and muscles. Poor working posture contributes to spinal problems and a gradual decrease of blood to the brain. Over time, this can lead to diminished mental faculties, leading to lower productivity as well as accidents from reduced concentration. One answer suggested in this article is Tai Chi, which helps maintain flexibility and improve posture. These same moves can help the blue-collar worker suffer fewer injuries by transferring energy and weight though the body when lifting. Other martial arts-based safety training is available that touts not only improved balance and flexibility, but also widened employee attention, which prevents injury.13

Safety Incentives
Among the many choices the safety manager has at his/her disposal is the idea of safety incentives. A few hours' perusal of the Internet can bring you to many sites flaunting their version of the best safety incentive plan with games, health-related or safety-related products, and training.

No matter how many hours of safety training an employer conducts, it does no good if employees don't follow through. Therefore, they must be rewarded for positive results and injury prevention. The old carrot-and-stick analogy is still alive and still working, if presented well enough. Meaningful incentives can sell safety; the trick is finding the right motivator for the majority. A few examples are:

  • cash bonus for fewer accidents than previous period
  • stock ownership or profit sharing
  • safety bingo games with cash or gifts to win.

One case study showing the effectiveness of incentive programs is the success story of Stinson Lumber, which has had an incentive-based safety program in place for its more than 2,000 employees since 1989. Dan Sweeney, vice president of human resources, said the company was paying $1.3 million annually for worker's compensation because of lost-time injuries prior to starting the program. After three years, Stinson reduced that cost to $300,000.14

The Journey Begins
The new safety manager will want to do some prudent application of the new and old ways of thinking about safety, including BBS, cognitive theories, BBS versus engineering controls. He or she also must consider the corporate culture and the safety culture of those involved, continuously examining his/her own paradigms as well as those of management and employees, and working within the management's culture to incorporate both incentive and wellness programs.

Perhaps s/he'll have the good fortune to work with a cutting edge corporation that has a management totally committed to a well balanced safety program, offering a wellness program with education and exercise classes and also rewarding its employees when they improve their lost work days and injuries. Some employers are beginning to realize healthier employees are happier employees, which increases their productivity and decreases absenteeism.

The new safety manager coming into the workplace should be happy s/he has a plethora of opportunities ahead. With so many resources available, how can the safety program be anything but successful?

1. Robotham, G. "25 Years in Review." Professional Safety. February 2000:39-41.

2. Krause, R.,"Cross-functional Improvement." Professional Safety. August 2002:27-33.

3. Krause, R. Employee-Driven Systems for Safe Behavior, Thomson Publishing, 1995, p.232.

4. Krause, R. "Cross-functional Improvement." Professional Safety. August 2002:27-33.

5. Fry, J.N. and D.J. Killing. "Vision Check." Business Quarterly Canada. 54(1989): 64-69.

6. Williams, A., et al. Changing Culture: New Organizational Approaches. London: IPM, 1989.

7. Cooper, D. "Safety Culture." Professional Safety. June 2002:30-36.

8. International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG). "Basic Safety Principles for Nuclear Power Plants." Safety Series No. 75. International Atomic Energy Agency, 1988.

9. Cooper, D. "Safety Culture." Professional Safety. June 2002:30-36.

10. Kamp, J. "Cognitive Era." Professional Safety. October 2001:30-34.

11. Brooks, R. "Winning with Wellness." Occupational Health & Safety. July 2001:97-99.

12. Atkinson, W. "Martialing the Art of Safety." Safety + Health. April 2002:44-45.

13. www.movesmart.com, The Motivational Manager. August 2000

14. Wennen, G. "Why Safety Incentive Programs Work." Occupational Health & Safety. June 2002:60-62.

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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