Step Change from the Bottom Up

Using peer trainers, you, too, can develop a grassroots Safety culture with bamboo-like impact.

Looking for a solid way to boost worker involvement? If you’ve read any of my other writings or attended my presentations, you’ve likely heard me extol the paybacks of training workers as peer Safety change catalysts. I know this from worldwide experience—we’ve trained more than 20,000 such “Instructor-Catalysts” in our injury- prevention systems and have seen results that one senior manager called “miraculous” in both Safety performance and cultural turnarounds.You too can develop a grassroots Safety culture with bamboo-like impact (measured as growing up to four feet per day!).

What happens? Day-to-day behavior changes, highly-resistant workers become motivated and positive, apathetic employees gratefully take responsibility for their own actions, people on all levels become excited about Safety—and injuries plummet.

Why? Peer trainers/change agents are closest to work and related Safety risks.When well-selected and trained, they have high credibility with their peers. There’s often less pushback when peers who’ve done the work offer new methods, rather than when changes are driven from expectations by safety professionals or managers. Peer trainers are usually more available than salaried staff to informally and ongoingly coach, daily promote new Safety actions, and reinforce these changes—and to train new hires. Further, this process develops workers as higher-level resources, who often expand to help their company in other ways.

You can realize these returns as well; that is, if you approach this process strategically and rigorously. Contrarily, we’ve seen companies expecting quick and easy fixes by shortcutting this process.

Transforming Peers into Catalysts
What we’ve learned? Better not even start up if you can’t do a thorough job.Above all, avoid these nine intervention-killing mistakes:

Leaving supervisors & the bargaining unit (if there) out of the selection and approval process.

Doing a poor job of choosing peer trainers (those who couldn’t care less, those slated to retire soon, only by seniority). But it’s fine, even desirable, to include high-profile, resistant people. Or include Safety Committee members to give them tangible skills to transmit.

Not thoroughly training peer catalysts. Some companies naively expect four or eight hours is enough time to train workers to learn and assimilate new material, be able to answer a range of questions or respond to objections, activate groups of their peers during training they present, work with others on individual concerns, and develop organizational methods for ongoing reinforcement.No way. I’ve found that if you want someone to be able to move others to Level G in new skills, the trainers have to be at Level M or N themselves. If you don’t fully prepare them, they—and you—may just be set up to lose credibility (and confidence).

Expect them to do too much. Training peer catalysts should be a turnkey system, with all materials and equipment provided, so selected employees can concentrate on knowing their objectives, making strong contact, sharing anecdotes on why they personally know these new skills and strategies really have helped them and can help others too.

Not fully employing trainers. Make sure that courses actually occur and aren’t cancelled at the last moment.Make time for peer catalysts to meet with fellow workers on the floor and with each other monthly to reinforce new skills.

Not launching program soon and strong. Trainers have to get going as soon as possible after their own training (or else memory fades and confidence plummets).

Inadequate saturation. The “secret” to maximizing results with peer change agents is less in their courseroom teaching and more in their exciting and informally coaching peers during work, in breakrooms, etc. A critical mass of catalysts is essential, ranging from one catalyst to every 35 to 50 coworkers, depending on shift, age, and gender mix, subcultures, and more.

Intervention, new skills, and methods not reinforced. Nothing kills a budding program like either “forget about that stuff and get back to work” or “out of sight, out of mind” messages. Remember to keep your worker catalysts excited and fresh through regular refresher training (minimally once or twice yearly).

Management not involved, doesn’t actively support. It’s critical to designate at least one interested upper manager as a sponsor of peer catalyst intervention to smooth logistics and offer senior support.

Sure, I could tell you many stories and expound on this for days. But the important point is real, groundbreaking, almost beyond belief improvements in safety performance, safety morale, communications, and personal outlook have taken root in many other companies in many countries and can in your organization as well. If you approach it the right way. If you plan effectively. If you effectively enlist the power of engaging employee leadership.

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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