EHS Management, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety, Special Topics in Safety Management

The Top 3 Safety Challenges of 2019

The 2019 Annual Safety Progress Report, based on a yearly survey conducted by the EHS Daily Advisor and SafeStart, is our latest record of how safety professionals in the real world are identifying and overcoming common safety challenges. The top 3 challenges we’ve identified for 2019 are familiar to environment, health, and safety (EHS) pros—but the concern surrounding them is growing.

Safety pros in industry

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For three years running, our Annual Safety Progress Report has identified the same three top safety challenges. (You can download the full 2019 report here for free.) However, the share of survey respondents that identify these as their top challenges has grown year over year. These challenges are:

  1. Employee engagement. This challenge was selected as a pressing concern for 54% of survey participants—the highest percentage ever recorded in our Annual Progress Survey, and up from 48% in our 2018 poll.
  2. Employees taking shortcuts or ignoring rules. 46% of those polled cited this as one of their current challenges, an increase from 44% in 2018.
  3. Supervisor participation in safety programs. Once again, this was our #3 top challenge identified by survey respondents. However, the share of respondents that noted this challenge increased from 38% in 2018 to 42% in this year’s survey.

These challenges clearly are not going away, and they probably cannot be solved once and for all—maintaining engagement and a positive safety culture is an ongoing process. However, safety managers and professionals can take a proactive approach to addressing these challenges at their organizations with the right attitude, the right communication, and the right tools.

Employee Engagement

Employee engagement isn’t just a safety issue—it’s a workforce issue. However, the issue is so all-encompassing that it can have an extremely detrimental effect on your safety culture and safety performance.

While the benefits of safety are inherently obvious to EHS pros, employees may wonder, “What’s in it for me?” There are a variety of benefits that safety managers can communicate, and here are a few quick ideas for boosting engagement:

  • Safety suggestions. Creating an anonymous space—or an online form—for employees to request change will help give them a voice and relieve them of whistleblower fears in speaking up.
  • Forums. Bringing together employees from different departments and/or locations to discuss safety topics can give them a fresh perspective on their workplace while also creating a stronger sense of community across your organization.
  • Stand-down. A stand-down is a work shutdown that can (1) demonstrate how seriously your company takes safety; (2) teach employees how to address hazards and incidents; and (3) contribute to a dialogue with your employees about safety that promotes engagement.

Employees Taking Shortcuts or Ignoring Rules

This is a different angle of employee engagement, one that is more obviously safety-specific. One of your best assets for addressing this challenge is other employees—in an effective safety culture, employees will notice when others are taking unnecessary risks or otherwise behaving unsafely, and with proper training, they will speak up. This communication may mean even more coming from a fellow employee than from management.

Unfortunately, there are a great deal of cognitive factors that prevent employees from speaking up when they see something unsafe. Among other factors, a “perfect storm” of cognitive inhibitions include:

  • Reactance, or the natural urge to resist or do the opposite of what someone tells you to do—it’s the human need for exercising autonomy and independence. When a worker speaks up against an unsafe action, reactance or defensiveness can be triggered in the other worker who is performing the unsafe action. Research shows that across industries, 28% of “offending” workers become defensive in these situations, and 1 in 6 actually become angry.
  • Social incongruence, the stress that we feel when we are in tension with others. Part of being human is being social and connected with those around us, and the tension that could result from speaking up is profound. We’re wired to get away from that feeling.
  • Confirmation bias, where people are extremely good at justifying what they have already concluded. We can rationalize anything by paying attention to things we want to believe and discarding everything to the contrary. Good examples of thought processes rooted in confirmation bias as it relates to safety include, “No one else has said anything, so it must not be that big of a deal,” or “It won’t make a difference if I speak up.”

We have more on this issue here, along with tips for tackling the problem.

Safety supervisor, leader

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Supervisor Participation in Safety Programs

One way to address this challenge is to remind your frontline supervisors to communicate safety every day. This doesn’t have to be a structured, burdensome chore; in fact, once supervisors are in the habit of it, it will come as naturally as any other casual interaction with employees, of which they have hundreds every day.

The key is safety-related verbal contacts, which could range from a passing conversational question (“Are you having a safe shift?”) to positively reaffirming safety (“I saw you bending with your knees as you lifted that. That’s good! It will keep your back healthy.”) to gently corrective inquiries (“Have you thought where your elbow will go when that box is pulled free?”). For some more ideas, check out these seven safety leadership tips for supervisors.

For more information on the top safety challenges of 2019, as well as more results from our most recent survey into the current state of workplace safety, download your free copy of the 2019 Annual Safety Progress Report here!

Continuing Research

The EHS Daily Advisor’s research efforts strive to produce a greater understanding about how workplace safety and environmental efforts are taking shape nationwide. On topics ranging from safety’s connection to operational excellence to how professionals can make the business case for EHS to more specific topics like personal protective equipment (PPE) and 5S systems, our surveys help both us and our readers learn more about how these issues are playing out in the real world.

However, we can’t do it without your help! Keep an eye out for new surveys in the EHS Daily Advisor and share your opinion so that you can help shape future safety conversations. Thanks to our sponsors, the resulting reports from our surveys are free to our readers. Check out our resources page to download copies of past reports.