As workplace safety requirements increase, these processes are unfortunately increasingly perceived by workers as the bi-product of an overly litigious, ‘nanny-state’ world: red-tape requirements and boxes which must be ticked to appease safety officers. These requirements are often completed disingenuously and resented for creating extra work and hindering efficiency. However, it has been extensively proven that weak safety culture in workplaces is associated with workplace fatalities, injury, illness, lower job satisfaction and significant loss of revenue for companies and individuals. To avoid these consequences, employees at all levels must take an interest in creating a safe workplace, rather than considering it solely the safety person’s responsibility.
The concept of workplace safety seems far more critical when one considers the history of workplace safety laws, and the significant improvements which have been achieved in the lives of workers since the rise of safety culture. Workers in Industrial Revolution era Britain were subject to appalling conditions: 14-hour shifts were common, and children as young as 6 worked factory flaws for abysmal pay. Machinery used in mills were notoriously unsafe, and disabling injuries and fatalities were common. Furthermore, poor sanitation and hot closed factory conditions meant that contagious illnesses such as typhus, typhoid and smallpox were widespread. The Factory Act of 1802 stipulated proper ventilation and minimal standards of cleanliness, as well as ensuring that children received a basic education and clothing. Working hours were capped at twelve hours a day and working at night was eliminated for children. This was the first major win for Safety Laws in the Western world, and the positive implications for individuals affected by these improvements would have been immense.
Obviously we have come a long way since those days, but unfortunately unsafe workplace conditions cannot be relegated to antiquity. The preoccupation of modern companies with hazard prevention and documentation is not irrelevant, as Alberta has by no means achieved an acceptable standard of safety for all workers. In 2016 The Workplace Injury, Disease and Fatality Statistics Provincial Summary released by Alberta OHS reported 116 workplace fatalities and 44,543 disabling injury claims.
Despite these concerning statistics, many companies still have a weak safety culture. In such work places safety is often relegated to the domain of supervisors, managers or safety officers. This is problematic, as it should not be someone else’s responsibility to complete forms and safety reports. Nor should it be on someone else to intervene if an incident is about to happen. Safety is a shared responsibility and cannot be relegated exclusively to one person, or to a few people. This idea is in fact inherently flawed, as the majority of safety incidents involve workers, not managers or safety personnel. When safety is a ‘top-down’ process, which is enforced onto workers rather than embraced as a genuine priority, it is those very workers who are likely to experience the resultant risks, injuries and fatalities. So what can work places do to establish a shared and genuine culture of safety?
Some Canadian workplaces have embraced safety incentives as a way of involving employees at all levels in their own safety and the safety of those around them. In some cases employees identifying near-misses, attending meetings or wearing correct PPE consistently are rewarded, and in others individuals or teams are rewarded if no incidents occur over a given time period. In any incentive system though, there is the risk that a safety preoccupation becomes disingenuous and superficial: aimed at monetary or material reward rather than being motivated by a genuine concern for the wellbeing of oneself and one’s colleagues.
What other initiatives can help management to establish safety as a shared responsibility? One method which has received significant success is in involving workers in the formulation of a clear, common vision for reducing illnesses, injuries and fatalities. Management should be open and transparent about jointly formed goals and involve workers in decisions about how they might be achieved. If workers are more involved in the creation of these processes, they feel a sense of ownership. Measures are designed not only for them, but also partially by them. Workers who make suggestions for safety, or who report near-misses, should be celebrated for making their workplace a safer place. Management should ensure that workers are actively involved in safety meetings and in communications about evolving safety measures. Suggestion boxes and surveys are other ways to involve workers who may not feel comfortable voicing their opinion in a public meeting scenario. Whichever method is deemed most appropriate by management, ongoing conversations with workers about the safety of themselves and their colleagues is the aim, or in other words ‘talking with’ rather than ‘talked at’ workers. By giving employees a voice, collaboration and genuine engagement is fostered.
As well as leadership involving all employees in safety goals, leadership should also ensure that employees know that a preoccupation with safety is aimed primarily at worker wellbeing. In other words, leadership’s prioritization of safety should be motivated by keeping their employees safe, rather than by keeping within red-tape boundaries or passing audit requirements, and this commitment should be made clear to workers. Employees are likely to view safety processes more positively if they feel that these steps are designed based on a genuine commitment to their wellbeing.
Management can demonstrate this sincere concern for workers by taking reports of incidents or near-misses seriously, and investigating them in a thorough, sincere and timely manner. Incident investigations should be rigorous rather than simply conducted to enable management to tick a legal box. In serious cases, management can enforce a stand-down, whereby operations are ceased until all are confident that it is safe to return to work. These actions will reinforce management’s stated aim to ensure that all company employees are working in a safe environment.
These strategies are aimed at restructuring the perception of workplace safety from a process which is top-down and enforced upon disinterested employees, towards employees having a vested interest in belonging to a company which operates safely. These measures should ideally foster positive peer pressure towards reporting unsafe conditions, and working as a team to resolve these. If safety becomes a shared responsibility, the positive impacts in terms of lower rates injury, illness, fatalities and loss of company and individual incomes, will be felt and enjoyed by all.