I like data. I like safety. I nerd out when the two mix. When the EHS Daily Advisor’s 2019 Annual Safety Progress Report came out, I read it with the same enthusiasm my 3-year-old daughter eats freshly baked cupcakes.
This survey canvassed the perspectives of mostly middle managers: 70% are managers, directors, or executives within EHS departments; 10% are staff-level employees; and 7% are front-line supervisors. These are the people tasked with rolling out any new corporate initiative, safety included.
As safety professionals, we have a deep interest in understanding the experience of this group. We firmly believe that front-line participation in safety is the leading indicator of safety performance. At eCompliance, we are fascinated with how companies transform their safety culture and have been using our big data set, which tracks thousands of front-line safety activities each day, to study what the best companies do, how they are similar, and how they differ.
Middle managers have it tough. The survey reflected two enormous pressures of the job: Multiple priorities from above and resistance to change from below.
The Greatest Challenges
Take the first question: “What is the single greatest challenge you’re currently facing in safety at your organization?”. The common challenges expressed by the survey participants were: Complacency, employee engagement, training, basic compliance, management buy-in, and safety culture. This is perhaps the most demotivating list I have ever read.
Yet these responses reflect the experience in the field. Complacent front lines, inefficient administration, and no leadership from the top are big problems, and middle managers are not positioned to solve them alone. The good news is that it is not all their problem to solve.
Our big data research on high-participation safety cultures confirms what managers already know, everything starts with Leadership at the top. The nuances from our research reveal two leadership traits shared by top quartile companies:
- First, the CEO is sincerely committed to safety. Nothing will happen if the CEO does not believe in it. A sincere commitment to safety is more than just some pleasantries at a quarterly meeting. Employees see straight through that. It takes a personal commitment made publicly and repeatedly.
- Second, the safety leader rises in the organization, and safety is given equal importance to operations and sales. Interestingly, the safety leader’s authority does not come from a big team or budget, it comes from the CEO’s mandate to improve safety culture. The best safety leaders believe that safety requires the involvement of everyone, every day, and they empower workers to own safety. This safety leader may not necessarily be a safety expert, either. Some of the most effective safety leaders have earned their credentials leading people through change.
Employee Buy-In and Engagement
Subsequent questions in the survey demonstrated the issues safety managers face with employee buy-in. When presented a list of common safety challenges, survey respondents highlighted these top 3:
- Employee engagement,
- Employees taking shortcuts, and
- Supervisor participation.
We know that employee buy-in will not happen without leadership commitment. So, let’s discuss employee buy-in assuming that the CEO is all in and a safety leader has risen to lead change. There are still challenges associated with an intergenerational workforce and “flavor of the week” cynicism about corporate change initiatives.
After speaking with dozens of companies across North America, there are four tactics that have proven effective to earn employee buy-in.
- First, speak to the older workers and get their buy-in at the start. It is human nature to want to fit in, and younger workers may be naturally inclined to emulate strong role models.
- Second, speak about the economics of safety. It is okay to acknowledge that safety is not all altruistic. Yes, we want workers to return home to their families every day. But injuries cost money in insurance premiums, delays, and lawsuits. Strong safety records help win contracts and protect margins from completing jobs on time. Do not pretend economic factors do not exist, because they do—and workers can detect insincerity immediately.
- Third, remember that older employees have worked dangerous jobs their whole lives. Risk is tightly woven into their identity as household providers. The best messaging empathizes with this identity: “We complete jobs on time and on budget thanks to our strong safety record. Safety helps us win more work and directly contributes to our success as a business. Thanks to our safety record, we all have more job security.”
- Finally, celebrate older workers for their experience and elevate them in the organization as role models. They will feel proud and appreciated. Younger workers seek mentorship and training, and this may help alleviate some of the recruitment challenges faced by labor-intensive industries.
The Obstacles Managers Face
Later in the report, survey participants reveal the top obstacles to implementing safety improvements. The top 3 answers: Budget, training, and competing with other operational priorities. Budget is no problem if leaders are committed and the CEO has staked a personal claim to improving safety culture. Training can be simplified through mentorship from older workers, along with some digital tools to help distribute content and track certification.
Competing priorities, however, is a real struggle for middle managers.
Where is safety on the priority list? How do we balance safety and production? Many safety leaders struggle to answer this question because they have not framed it as a business problem. It is easy to say, “Safety first.” It is a different thing to say, “Putting safety first will protect $10 million in revenue and generate a return on investment of 35% over 3 years by reducing our incidents 67% (the average incident rate reduction for our customers).”
We discussed the rise of safety leaders and how they can become successful change agents. Part of leading change is being able to build a business case, pitch senior management, and secure resources and commitment for a project. This is a skill that can be learned and does not require a fancy degree. All it takes is for safety leaders to elevate and see themselves as value creators.
Safety is not just a cost to be minimized. It is not one more thing to do on a long list of to-dos. Aside from protecting lives, safety drives top line revenue, reduces costs, and protects margins. Safety is a competitive advantage when bidding on jobs and recruiting young talent. Safety is close to the CEO and shapes the culture of an organization.
Middle managers have it tough. Sandwiched between front-line staff and senior leaders, middle managers execute on multiple priorities and sometimes feel leadership or culture sabotages their best efforts. We know from our research that the safest companies in the world empower their workers to identify risk and eliminate it. Leadership gives front-line staff the agency and the resources to drive change, and then steps back and lets them get the job done.
|Calvin Benchimol is Director of Corporate Development at eCompliance. During his time with eCompliance, Calvin has been instrumental in defining customers’ journey to a High Participation Safety Culture. Using big data and deep empirical research, he’s helped the company and its clients look beyond the numbers to understand the human side of safety. Prior to working with eCompliance, Calvin received his MBA from IESE Business School in Barcelona and helped transform the safety culture of a mining and manufacturing environment as a front-line operations manager.|