For much longer than many people realize, employee engagement has been the driving factor in not only safety, but performance in general.

Everything Is an Engagement 'Issue'

There is nothing more important than your people and nothing more beneficial than having them engaged at the highest level possible.

I picked up a recent issue of OH&S and was struck by the pattern I noticed in the articles, and to some extent even the ads it included. Viewed through my eyes, virtually everything relates in some way, shape, or form to employee engagement (EE). For me, this is further evidence that engagement should not be just an ancillary issue that safety folk consider only occasionally, when they are not focused on other, more normal, safety issues like PPE and training. In many ways EE has become the most important issue to contend with, and its power is only growing.

Once you notice this "hidden message," you will feel a bit like Tom Hanks' character, Robert Langdon, in the movie "The Da Vinci Code." All you see everywhere you look are clues that will reinforce the premise that EE is truly foundational. I offer up as evidence the March 2014 issue of OH&S to demonstrate what I am referring to. Keep in mind, this was not an issue in which OH&S chose to focus on EE or the recognition/rewards programs that are used by many companies to promote engagement. In fact, the theme of the March issue could probably be more broadly described as focusing on PPE. Nevertheless, below I have highlighted some of the articles from that issue and explained where I see a connection, even if the author did not articulate one:

  • Let's start with the cover story, "Refreshing Your Lockout/Tagout Program." The article tells a story about Jason, a new safety manager at a fast-growing company. On his first day, Jason "engages" with employees on the production floor and notices that they are not following proper procedures. His solution was to dust off (literally) the old procedures, enhance and improve them, and retrain the workers. In my experience, to execute such a plan with the greatest level of long-term success requires capturing the attention of the workforce over an extended period of time. Beyond the strong tactics highlighted in the story, my recommendations would be to also reward workers who pass quizzes at regular intervals after the training is complete to ensure they understand the procedures and retain the information they received. Another good tactic would be to ask for volunteers to serve as lockout/tagout specialists to ensure that procedures continue to be followed, especially with new hires. Both of these tactics create real-life examples of how high levels of EE ensure long-term success.
  • On page 4, there is a short article titled "New Pig's Forum Gets the Waste Out," which highlights a web-based tool that can help companies facilitate waste minimization and in the process save money. Should a company choose to deploy such a program the right way, it could use the initiative to engage with employees in an area of shared concern, that being recycling and conservation. Rather than being looked at as a nuisance, the activities required to implement a waste minimization program could help employees make and enhance personal relationships on the job and have a positive effect in many areas of operation, including safety. If the company also chose to recognize the star performers in that program, it would have a runaway hit that undoubtedly would produce a favorable ROI.
  • On page 8, there is another short piece titled "Watching Out for Signs of Trouble." This is a story about recognizing the signs of drug and alcohol abuse as a way of mitigating the damage that such abuse can cause to both the employee and the company. Using meetings to reinforce the recognition techniques this piece mentions and to reassure whistleblowers are far more likely to produce positive results than simply hanging a poster on a wall.
  • On page 14, there is an article about heat stress and the importance of recognizing the signs and mitigating the risks. On pages 16 and 20, the issues of hearing protection and head/face protection are addressed in the context of comfort and proper fitting of PPE. In fact PPE, is highlighted throughout most articles and ads in this issue. In all cases, proper training and use of PPE can be greatly improved by deploying EE tactics and recognizing and rewarding workers for their efforts to go above and beyond what is required of them.

Engaged Companies Are Thriving
Once you begin to view EE in this light, you begin to see engagement as something of a "hub" from which all other initiatives are connected. Think about it, what else would make more sense as the hub of your safety program? It's not the PPE itself or the training. It's not the observation program or audit processes. These things and many more are all very important, but there is nothing more important than your people and nothing more beneficial than having them engaged at the highest level possible.

Since so much of the business world now chooses to interact online, I thought I would go beyond the pages of the magazine and pluck some real-life conversations from the OSHA Discussion & Support Group on LinkedIn. Below are four recent conversations, along with my thoughts on the issues highlighted and their connection to EE:

LinkedIn question: “Does anyone have a point of view about online safety training vs. classroom training?"
My answer: Face-to-face training is a great opportunity to engage with new or existing workers, and if done properly it can greatly improve training retention. Trainers should announce at the beginning that quizzes will be given after each session, that points will be awarded to everyone who attains a certain score, and that bonus points will be awarded to those who ace the quizzes. As a result, smartphones will be shut off and comprehension will go through the roof. If online training must be used, face-to-face reinforcement and testing should still take place wherever possible.

LinkedIn question: “What is the simplest and fastest way for EH&S to relay messages to a broad workforce?"
My answer: Give them a good reason to receive and internalize the messages. This starts by achieving high levels of engagement but is greatly enhanced when the communications come through a platform that already has their attention. A well-built recognition/reward program has as its entry point a fully customized website, which typically receives 10-20 times more traffic than a company’s intranet site and has visitors that are “sticky” (they stay on the site voluntarily for a long time). Magnify that by using social media (Twitter, Facebook, and the like) to ensure the message is seen in a timely manner, and reinforce the most important parts of the message with a system of rewards.

LinkedIn question: “What can be done about a stale culture?”
My answer: Study every existing opportunity in your company where human interactions take place (in and out of a safety context) and ask yourself one simple question: “How could we make each interaction more memorable?” Recognition and rewards are a part of it, but using other social skills and genuinely caring to make the experience memorable is most of it. You need the right person in your organization to serve as your EE specialist.

LinkedIn question: “How does your organization tie safety to operations?”
My answer: According to Gallup Inc.'s "State of the American Workplace" report, organizations that have high levels of engagement (defined as 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee) experience 147 percent higher earnings per share (EPS) as compared with their competition. By contrast, those that have high levels of disengaged workers (defined as 2.6 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee) experience 2 percent lower EPS compared with their competition. Bottom line, engaged companies are thriving and disengaged companies are in the process of dying. Hit operations and the C-suite with these stats and it will lead to the conversation that you are looking to have, namely that the "expenses" related to achieving high levels of EE are actually investments with a great effect on safety and a positive ROI.

To take this point a step further, here is how Gallup summarized their findings. "Gallup research has found that the top 25% of teams … versus the bottom 25% in any workplace … have nearly 50% fewer accidents and have 41% fewer quality defects. What’s more, teams in the top 25% versus the bottom 25% incur far less in healthcare costs. So having too few engaged employees means our workplaces are less safe, employees have more quality defects, and disengagement… is driving up the country’s healthcare costs."

In summary, for much longer than many people realize, employee engagement has been the driving factor in not only safety, but performance in general. As new generations of workers wash through the system, the need for engagement strategies has never been greater. While this may seem like an issue for HR and operations, in a company with a high percentage of safety-sensitive workers, the responsibility often falls to the safety manager who most desperately needs the workforce to be engaged.

No matter what the situation, communication is the key toward achieving higher levels of success, and nothing works better than wrapping communications in a recognition/rewards program that keeps people engaged, focused, and motivated.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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