To Boost Employee Safety, Make it Personal

Bring home the reasons for the rules, and the risks of breaking them.

Ever wondered why your employees take unnecessary safety risks or neglect basic safety practices? While they may give you all kinds of excuses, a big reason may be the way humans think. People simply don’t believe they’re going to suffer any negative effects when they take chances. It’s what psychologists call the optimism bias: Humans underestimate the likelihood that something bad is going to happen to them.

One way to overcome optimism bias is to make the issue of safety feel more personal. Give your employees concrete examples that will bring home exactly what they could be risking when they don’t take the time to put on their eye protection before running a saw or examine a ladder’s rungs before they climb it, for example.

Selling safety to front line employees can be tough, according to Patrick J. Karol, president and founder of Karol Safely Consulting LLC. In a webinar from the American Industrial Hygiene Association, he noted that employees too often see safety practices as something forced on them that they must endure.  

To help employees see the personal benefits of safety rules and practices, Karol advises managers to:

  • Develop a safety vision and be enthusiastic about sharing it. It doesn’t have to be complex; it can be as simple as “no one gets hurt on the jobsite today.”
  • Define the vision in operational terms. Don’t just tell people to stay safe; tell them to be on the lookout for forklifts as they move around a jobsite or remind them to keep ladders away from electrical lines.
  • Communicate the importance of safety not only in the words you say but also in the way you say them and even in your body language. If you rush through the safety report to get to the production details, you’re sending a message that safety isn’t important.
  • When you visit a jobsite, don’t just look for infractions; also praise the use of safe practices. Single out the safety stars and encourage them to pass on the safety vision.
  • Talk about safety in stories, not statistics. What would you remember more clearly, an observation that PPE reduces eye injuries by a certain percentage or a story about a guy who kept his eye because he was wearing goggles when a chunk of wood flew right into his face?
  • Talk to your employees and get their feedback. If there’s been a safety incident, go to the front-line workers and ask for their opinions about why it happened. (We all like to think our opinions are valued.) 
  • Find ways to link safety directly to workers’ lives. Invite employees to post photos that show why they want to go home in one piece — for example, an image of them fishing with their kid or grandkid or a shot of their most recent scuba diving trip or woodworking project.

When safety becomes personal, workers won’t just do the minimum required; they’ll go the extra mile because they understand it’s important not just to the company but to them.

 

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.