Energizing & Internalizing Safety: Three Strategic Principles for Breakthrough Results

Engaging workers in safety is way more effective than telling them about it, or being passive.

How do you achieve breakthrough results in safety? Even after you’ve tried everything? Well, “everything” might imply “a double dose of more of the same” or even “variations on a basic theme.”

Many companies have found that harnessing high level engagement, when combined with practical, portable mental and physical skills, can lead to great results, such as an 85 percent reduction in soft-tissue injuries.

United Airlines reported a 53 percent decrease in soft-tissue injuries among baggage handlers. Northrop Grumman’s Lake City plant saw a double-digit decrease in injuries over a five-year period. MSC Industrial Supply’s Atlanta distribution center reduced its injury rate by 78 percent over a two-year period. In each case, the company harnessed high level engagement and strong attention to eliciting and nurturing worker engagement. We’ve all likely heard how important it is to engage workers in safety.

We’ve all probably heard that when managers and supervisors activate workers, rather than be passive, workers are more likely to recall and apply best methods, more willing to participate in safety initiatives and more likely to make useful suggestions. But engagement, important as it is, is not enough—especially the way it’s too-commonly envisioned. Too often, managers or supervisors just scratch the surface of potentially deeper engagement.

Because perceptions, beliefs and paradigms funnel into strategy and planning, I suggest considering “engagement” as more than just a mental event. It’s certainly not just the semblance of “participating”—haven’t you seen some would-be leaders try to force this by calling out people to individually respond in a group setting? Or by making “you’re volunteered” assignments to a project or task force? Similarly, by only engaging others verbally but not physically?

The best engagement gets people moving and physically trying something out. One example is having workers put on and check out a newly proposed protective equipment. Another is having workers sample a new and different lifting technique that simultaneously heightens usable strength while reducing forces in the lower back and other vulnerable areas.

So, if you truly want to insight engagement that also lasts, here are three proven principles to apply to your company cultures:

Energy is critical for initiating, expanding AND sustaining improvements. Bringing energy to any safety conversation is needed for directing attention in the right ways as well as necessary for incorporating safest and most effective actions.

This is a critical but often disregarded high-level leadership mindset. If something doesn’t energize others, it is unlikely to develop much initial—and certainly not any sustaining—traction.

Too much safety is overloaded towards low-energy or even energy-depleting approaches. Identify those “black holes” in your safety culture, programming and actions. You know: proforma messaging done without enthusiasm, repeated in pretty much the exact same way because some think they “have to,” expecting blind adherence to rules that people don’t understand, maintaining old routines just because, uninspiring messaging, planning and talking without actually taking any real actions to improve problematic situations. The list goes on.

Seek out and reduce these energy sappers; every organization I’ve seen has at least some of these. And definitely don’t opt for including more.

While policies, procedures and rules are clearly necessary, make sure to re-balance these with interesting, exciting personally-useful safety approaches that raise energy, interest and enthusiasm.

The highest, most sustaining/self-renewing energy comes from within. The ultimate key to engaging people in safety is to have this come from within, internalized. While of course it’s necessary to have externalized safety systems, metrics, procedures, etc., most companies, again, are overbalanced here. Many companies say too often “This is what you have to do,” “These are your rewards for working safely,” or “We’ve determined the job safety analysis you are required to follow to the letter,” or “Here’s the personal protective equipment you have to use doing this task.”

Companies need to emphasize internalized P&P (principles and practices) where people actually question and understand what they’re trying to do and why, as well as how to apply these principles to a wide range of tasks at work and at home. Companies should focus less on outside motivation and more on internal, such as: determining where workers are already motivated and what they enjoy doing in their free time. There is, overall, too much focus on “Do this so our Safety statistics don’t take a hit” and not enough “I’m concerned about you personally.” Moving from “Do it the way we’ve determined is best” towards “Here are some possible ways to apply these safety principles, hoping you’ll select the one that works best for you” can go a long way.

Taking an internal, personal approach to safety is most essential when workers are doing tasks that aren’t closely supervised: out in the field, on their own and at dispersed sites where off-work cumulative trauma and habits form. Also, this approach is effective with those who are skeptical and resistant to just following orders because they’re told to.

Want to achieve breakthroughs in longstanding, nagging safety problems? Enlist energy and internalize safety more.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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