Attributes of an Injury-Free Culture, Part 4: Employee Engagement

When employees feel no sense of connection to the organization or its leaders, we cannot expect safety activities to flourish.

Creating the kind of culture where we go longer periods of time without injuries--and where no injury is acceptable--is a serious undertaking. In the past three articles, we have sketched the characteristics we have observed in organizations that do just this. Notably, the emphasis has been on the role of leaders: taking ownership for the culture, systems, and results; developing an exposure (vs. injury) focus; and rethinking the measurements and metrics that drive safety functioning and shape the assessment of our efforts. In this fourth and final installment, we outline the last essential piece to such a culture: the engagement of employees in reducing workplace exposure.

Engagement breathes life into the safety process and enables the particulars of an organization's objectives to be executed. At the end of the day, leadership is limited in its ability to provide coverage and even with the best safety programs is only as effective as the level of employee buy-in and support for these systems. The defining mark of an injury-free culture is what's called the "2 a.m. test." That is, what happens at 2 o'clock in the morning when no one is around, the consultants are long gone, and the managers have all gone home. Even if no one will know, does the employee follow procedures and guidelines because it is the right thing to do? In a culture of engagement, the answer is likely to be yes. This article describes the principles that underlie this level of engagement, areas where organizations can begin to cultivate it, and considerations for how engagement fits within the big picture of safety improvement.

The Rules of Engagement: Understanding Social Exchange Theory
What compels the employee in the 2 a.m. test to act in concert with the organization's stated objectives? In our experience, true engagement is more than simple empowerment. Being able or allowed to do something is important but not sufficient for true engagement in the safety process. The active participation, exchange of ideas, and ownership necessary for putting safety systems into action draws on something deeper than rules or protocol. This level of engagement is a function of relationships that exist within the organization.
Social Exchange theory explains how our relationship with another person, or with the organization as a whole, influences our actions with respect to that person or entity. How much we put into a relationship is dependent on what we get out of it, our feeling about the kind of relationship we feel we deserve, and whether we sense that we could do better in another relationship. Simply put, healthy relationships have a natural give and take; if you do something for someone, he feels a sense that he should reciprocate. The more you do for someone (or the more others do for you), the stronger the feeling of reciprocity.

Engagement begins when organizations establish their concern for the employee, ensuring that supervisors treat workers in an unbiased and fair manner and with dignity and respect. They also do this when they ensure that the senior leadership and the organization demonstrate concern for employees' well-being. These things establish a good relationship with employees and foster a strong sense of reciprocity. In this environment, employees tend to go above and beyond their job description because they feel it is the right thing to do for a peer, leadership, or the organization. This willingness to follow a procedure even when no one is watching or to step up and take on leadership in the moment is a sign of a very high-functioning organization.

Conversely, when employees feel no sense of connection to the organization or its leaders, we cannot expect safety activities to flourish. Instead, the organization will likely meet resistance in trying to implement new programs or systems that require employee engagement.

How Can Workers Help?
Employee Engagement in safety can take on a wide variety of looks and applications. To begin, we focus on the three areas where organizations can quickly realize value:

1. Providing information and feedback about the organization's systems and efforts. Workers are the customers for most of the safety systems we are installing, and they are the ones who must comply with the various procedures and rules the organization implements. Workers can tell us a great deal about how effective these systems are and which issues prevent their successful execution. In order to tap this information, we need to create an environment where workers can upwardly communicate about safety concerns and the challenges they face.

Employees must believe that someone is listening to information they pass along and that organizational leaders will actually act on this information. Lacking a sense of reciprocity, the employee has no compelling reason to provide constructive input. For example, if the employee does not feel connected to the organization or his or her boss, or if he has tried to upwardly communicate about safety before and gotten "beaten down" or seen that nothing happens with information passed along, the employee is less inclined to speak up.

How to make it work: With the exception of totally dysfunctional cultures, organizations can gather information formally from employees about what works and what doesn't through a combination of diagnostic tools, focus groups, and interviews, as well as informally through one-on-one discussions. There is one caveat to this activity, however: Once we as leaders seek feedback, we must share the findings, no matter how abysmal they may be, and be prepared to take action.

2. Helping to measure and manage exposure at the working interface. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for engagement is having workers measure the level of exposure at the working interface. Employees at the floor level add to the sets of eyes and ears focused on understanding the level of exposure and on the reasons (immediate and root cause) why an unacceptable level of exposure exists. The most common methodologies used for engaging employees here are observation and feedback systems. Traditional behavior-based safety approaches are a move in this direction but often focus too narrowly on behavior, instead of the broader picture of exposure.

How to make it work: A robust and rewarding engagement system needs to include a broad focus on exposure, emphasize the positive aspects of the working interface, and capture causation. There are two caveats to this approach. First, supervisors and managers cannot abdicate their responsibility to do their own measurement of the working interface. This is especially true of their responsibility to review and assess exposures that represent high potential for life-altering injuries or death, systems related to process safety management, and key permits and procedures. Second, the organization needs to be sensitive to the level of acceptance within the existing culture for employees approaching one another about safety. Where this approach would be counter-cultural, the system can be modified to accommodate the culture.

3. Workers can assist in identifying solutions to safety problems. The final area for effective engagement is enlisting employees in helping to fix problems. Most organizations already have enough problem identifiers; what is needed are people willing to tackle the challenges. Workers are operating the equipment, handling the product, and working the systems, and therefore they are ideally positioned to help identify solutions. As an added benefit, employees are more likely to support changes in which they, or their co-workers, have had a say.

How to make it work: In many organizations, engaging employees in identifying solutions offers an important opportunity for cross-functional and cross-level collaboration. As with measuring and managing exposure, it is important that leaders not abdicate their role (for instance, leaving it all to front-line employees) and that they clearly communicate the decision-making process.

Before You Jump Off
As with the other elements of the injury-free culture, employee engagement takes a well-defined strategy of what it will look like in the organization and how it will be communicated. The organization must be prepared for the commitment that engagement requires and must understand the impact engagement will have on the front-line leader. Employees may need time away from their "normal" duties to participate, placing an additional burden on leaders still faced with production demands.

Engagement also can be threatening to some in the organization and totally misunderstood by others. Some leaders may see employee engagement as competing with their power and authority. Others might see this as a chance to stop working on safety because "the employees will be handling it." These and other issues need to be considered and addressed when planning forward. Done well, however, engagement puts safety strategy into motion and sets the stage for increasing the overall functioning of the organization.
It is important to remember that achieving an injury-free culture is a marathon, not a sprint. Continuous improvement and small, significant steps are more important than short-term gains done for "show." In the end, creating an injury-free culture is possible only by being--or becoming--a truly exceptional organization.

This article is the final installment of a four-part series titled "The Attributes of an Injury-Free Culture" that began in August 2007.

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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