Workplace Safety Topics for Skeptical Managers

culture of safety in manufacturing

To create a true culture of safety in a workplace, it’s important for managers to get involved and take the process seriously. Image source: Flickr CC user Nic McPhee

When my brother-in-law started applying for jobs in our home town, everyone had advice and recommendations. “I know someone at the car factory!” “Don’t forget the cabinet company!” “The rolled aluminum plant is always hiring.” There was one piece of advice that he heard over and over. “Don’t work at the foundry. We’ve heard it’s risky over there and we don’t want you getting hurt.”

The foundry paid well and had great benefits, but its safety record was lacking. Managers at the foundry sometimes ignored safety rules and treated accidents as inevitable rather than a danger to employees, a drain on the company, and a major threat to productivity.  When a new CEO took over the foundry’s parent firm, he decided to make safety a priority at all of his factories. But could he overcome the complacency about safety that had become entrenched among managers?

Why Some Managers Resist a Culture of Safety

You’d think building and encouraging a culture of safety would come naturally to managers. After all, an unsafe workplace means higher health and workers’ compensation costs, more downtime, and a harder time finding qualified employees for open positions. However, some managers actively resist a safety-oriented culture, or have become apathetic. Part of the problem is that many managers’ jobs are insulated from the day-to-day dangers of a large factory. While front-line employees have a vested interest in avoiding injuries and lost time on the job, managers aren’t as affected by workplace safety, especially if they’re not the ones filling out the paperwork after an injury. Instead, when they’re faced with a culture change, they’re full of fear. When change comes, managers may:

  • Fear greater employee involvement in decision making. Creating a culture of safety often means encouraging employees to speak up, suggest changes, and report problems. This can make long-time managers nervous, since they’re unsure what employees will do or say. If employees have too much power over policy, managers feel they’ll become difficult to manage. What if employees report false safety violations in revenge for workplace discipline? Employee participation might also change the lines of authority and communication, and the uncertainty can be frightening.
  • Fear extra work will become a burden. Creating a safety culture takes time, and the burden of the work often falls on the people in salaried positions, since front-line employees get overtime for extra time at work.  In addition, it often comes with more paperwork, and that falls on managers. Managers sometimes fear that creating a culture of safety will burden them with extra hours and more paperwork, without any compensation to match.
  • Fear loss of job security and the stability of their job descriptions.  If employees take on a larger role in terms of safety management, there’s a risk that some managerial roles could become redundant. In a tough economy, most low to mid-level managers know that their jobs will be the first to be cut if orders fall and the factory needs to reduce costs. Even if they keep their jobs, the descriptions could change, requiring more work for less pay. Fear of unemployment makes many managers inclined to support the status quo, even when the status quo isn’t working anymore.  

When You’re Creating a Safety Culture, Communication Comes First

The key to overcoming fear is to build trust through open communication, education, involvement, support, and recognition. To get managerial buy-in to a safety culture, you must help them see the change as an opportunity, not a threat.

The first step to bringing managers into the new safety culture is communication. It’s not enough to communicate your goals and reasons for a safety culture to your managers. You need to be open to listening to communications from them.  That way, managers will understand that you’re there for them and understand their concerns.

Make sure that you’re transparent at every step of the way.  An independent safety audit may help reluctant managers understand the issues the company faces. Have someone from outside the company add up how much safety failures cost you, calculate the OSHA recordable rate by job description, and look at total hours of lost time over the course of a year.  

Listen to the managers’ feedback on the report. If they complain that changes won’t work, or that safety programs have failed in the past, find out the reasoning behind the assumption. These front-line managers may see things you don’t, and clear communication can help you create a program that will encourage buy-in and will succeed long-term.

Education and Involvement Bring Management on Board

The second step in building a new culture of safety is to educate your managers about safety.  It may have been a while since they’ve received in-depth training on manufacturing safety since training often focuses on employees. Send them to factories with a known safety culture so that they can observe how it works in practice. Arrange talks to equivalent managers at those companies.  Send them on a ‘walkabout’ on the floor of their own factory to look for safety hazards, talk to employees, and observe processes.  Provide ongoing training and refreshers through newsletters, brief meetings, and lunchtime talks.

The third step to getting managers to embrace a culture change is involvement. Most CEOs recognize the importance of employee buy-in for a safety culture, but tend to overlook management and focus their efforts on lower level staff. However, if management isn’t involved in the culture change, the change won’t become permanent, as employees will find safety procedures aren’t enforced and may let them fall by the wayside. Have management work alongside employees to come up with plans for a safer workplace. Make sure they feel like supported and valued contributors to the company’s changes.

Maintain Progress with Support and Recognition

Often managers are skeptical because they’ve seen past efforts fail through lack of support. Provide them the tools they need to implement and maintain the safety culture. Take their concerns seriously and address flaws in the process promptly.  Show your managers that supporting them is a priority by having a member of the C-suite or a consultant who is tasked with listening to their concerns and solving problems that arise.

Finally, never underestimate the power of recognition. In addition to recognizing employees and departments for time without a safety violation, give special attention to managers who successfully implement a safety culture. Reward them with luncheons, an off-site conference, or even gift cards. Make it clear that you notice and appreciate the extra work they’re doing to improve the work environment. By showing appreciation for their efforts, you’ll positively reinforce their work to promote safety.

The Foundry Re-founded

The foundry used to have a couple of major accidents or injuries a month.  Now, we hardly ever hear sirens, and when we do, they’re responding to an accident out on the state highway, not at the factory.

The new CEO had worked with managers to create a true, committed culture of safety. Even though they’d seen many attempts fail, this time was different. With education, excellent support, and positive reinforcement, the foundry changed, seemingly overnight. Employees now stay there for years. Heck, even my brother-in-law applied there when he was ready to change jobs, and he says it’s a great place to work – and a safe place to work, too.

Your manufacturing firm can’t succeed without a culture of safety, and that culture can’t happen without managerial buy-in. To help get your management on board with necessary cultural changes, contact Applied Vision Works.

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