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Silence is a silent killer

Parents know the value of silence—a blessing when faced with sibling disputes and chaos around the house.  But when it comes to your company’s safety program, silence proves to be a persistent obstacle that puts employees at risk and prevents safety programs from achieving greatness.

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As an employer you know you’re on the right path to developing a world class safety culture when employees not only are expected to speak up when something is unsafe, but they actually do.  This understanding that all employees are empowered to intervene is critical to breaking the sequence of events that leads to an injury.

“See something say something” is a great phrase for reminding of the need to take action.  Following an investigation of the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy in 2012 it was determined that while some recognized the signs of a troubled teen needing help the majority failed to say anything or get involved.  Imagine the guilt that some people carry by choosing to remain silent following a tragedy where they could have made a difference.  “If only I had said something.”

Let’s look at the common obstacles when trying to develop a workplace where employees desire to speak up.

  • A lack of outlets for sharing: Employers need to provide opportunities for the workforce to have a voice.  These can come in the form of suggestion or complaint boxes, focus groups, or safety committees.  The idea is to keep the employees engaged in the process of identifying issues and being a part of the solution.  This approach speaks to process improvement.
  • Risk tolerance: Some people enjoy the thrill of skydiving while others believe it to be too risky, realizing that not many people walk away after having fallen 15,000 feet and their parachute not opening.  The tolerance for risk is variable, so in the eyes of some people certain hazardous conditions and behaviors can be seen as benign or as posing an acceptable level of risk.  It’s therefore necessary to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to what is acceptable and what is not.  This can be achieved through daily planning and safety huddles to clarify and reinforce acceptable conditions and behaviors.
  • Priorities: Do employees suspect that that the company values production, quality, and customer service over safety?  Perceptions are important and only when safety and productivity are given equal emphasis does safety really matter in the eyes of the employee.  It’s only when safety trumps all other aspects of operations, such as universal “stop-work” authority, does the employee realize its importance in the opinion of management.
  • Incentives: Are there safety incentives that encourage silence?  By reporting near-miss incidents or injuries do employees risk not achieving their safety incentives or even being reprimanded?  Incentive programs need to encourage participation, keeping a watchful eye, and speaking up.
  • A caring work environment: A worker must truly believe that the employer cares about his/her wellbeing before trust can develop.  This trust changes employee behavior.  Employees that believe the employer cares about their health and wellbeing show a greater level of devotion.  Loyalty means the employee does not want to disappoint the employer by not behaving as requested.
  • Training and hazard recognition: Safe behavior can’t be expected and practiced if the employee has not been properly trained.  Task training needs to be effective and include the development of hazard recognition skills that can be directly applied.
  • Individual personality: Some people are just quiet or shy by nature.  Getting them to come out of their shell can be challenging.  Some may fear reprisal or even feel pressured by coworkers to keep silent about safety risks.  Changing the environment to change their behavior will take time but can be done with persistence.
  • Communication by leadership: It is critical that senior leadership be visible and heard when it comes to safety.  The workforce needs to hear that safety is an important part of a company’s viability.  Experience shows that describing both the human costs (injuries) and the business costs (financial impact) of a loss is an effective message.

No one in the work place can afford to be silent.  “Later” may too late for addressing an unsafe condition or behavior.  Health and safety program leaders need to work toward creating an environment where the workforce willingly owns the safety outcome and works to deliver safety together.

About the author:

Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.

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