Getting employees to buy in to safety efforts isn’t always easy. They typically look the same across many industries: rules, reminders, processes. All of these are important for a safe workplace. But some employers haven’t changed the way they share them in decades. What happens when employees stop paying attention? How can employers raise safety engagement in the workplace?
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we’re joined by Kevin Burns. He is the CEO of KevBurns Learning, where he develops programs and courses to deliver the tools and strategies that bring people to safety voluntarily. Burns is also the author of PeopleWork: The Human Touch in Workplace Safety.
First, we’ll talk about the history of distraction on the job. Then, we’ll discuss why safety data doesn’t always motivate employees. Finally, we’ll share three steps to selling a safer point of view to employees.
Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.
Tuning out: A history of distraction of the job
There are plenty of challenges getting employees to buy in to safety. Sharing safety rules often is important. However, some employees may begin to tune them out, thinking they know them inside and out. Others have never had an on-the-job incident or near miss. As a result, they feel they are less likely to get hurt. A few simply don’t like their jobs. Burns first saw this problem reflected in data from a Gallup poll in 2000. It revealed that nearly 74 percent of the North American workforce were “not actively engaged”. Nearly three out of four workers weren’t focused on their work – or safety in the workplace.
The numbers have improved in the decades since that poll. The number has dropped to around 65 percent – two in three workers. But the problem is clearly still around. “Safety is not something that we do in the back of our mind,” Burns explained. “It requires us being focused on the task as we’re doing it.” He helps make one point clear to the companies he works with. Without high levels of engagement, you can’t have an improved safety performance.
Data doesn’t sell safety to employees
Many employees have been attending the same kind of safety meetings for years. It includes a review of safety rules, reminders, and maybe some numbers that show improvement. However, Burns knows numbers don’t motivate employees. For example, he shares the experience of buying a new car. The data isn’t what sells it. The experience does. A test drive, imagining where we’ll go and what our friends will think – those things make the biggest difference.
“We buy in to things that benefit us in some way,” Burns shared. Things like education, insurance, and investments are all examples of this, too. We buy them because we’ll get something from them. “As soon as we understand what the benefit is to us, it helps us make that argument.”
More than one reason to work safely
Safety is important. This is true for every workplace. However, that isn’t the reason that people buy in to it. Employees buy in to a safety program, or act safely on the job, because there is a benefit.
Companies are often tempted to list the first benefit as not getting hurt on the job. But Burns finds this is a tough argument to make. Employees often aren’t injured when we have conversations about safety. As a result, rules and procedures make safety look like extra work. Why do more to get the same result that they have now? Why is working safely worth it?
Living a healthy retirement
The first reason to work safely is retirement. Most employees start putting money in to a 401(k) early. They focus on building up a nest egg of money to spend once they are older. It may mean a nice RV to travel in, or a move closer to grandkids, or a lake house in the woods. But two things are needed to fully enjoy retirement: money and health. Burns asks employees an important question: “What’s your plan of safely making it to retirement age?”
One of the easiest answers is following health and safety procedures. Those same safety steps can also be followed at home. Before cutting the grass or climbing on a ladder, employees can implement those same skills. Just by putting that information to use, employees can live a healthy retirement.
Nurturing a happy family
The second reason to work safely is a family. Not working safely introduces stress in a family. They may wonder every day whether their loved one will come home or not. And when a family is under stress, it shows up in different ways. For example, arguments, financial problems, or tension in relationships.
Working in a safe workplace – and using safe behavior – is reassuring for spouses and children. Most couple and families have hopes and dreams. There are places they want to visit. They have plans they’d like to accomplish. How would an on-the-job injury affect the employee, physically or mentally? How would it impact the family? Making safety a lifestyle is a long-term benefit.
Safety is a responsibility
Many businesses focus on sending people home safely. But to Burns, safety engagement needs to be about so much more. “Sending people home safe is the least we’re allowed to do by law,” he explained. “We’re not allowed to do less than that. And so when we celebrate that, we achieved the bare minimum, it does not put a great deal of stock in our safety programs.” Sending people home safely is not a benefit for employees. It’s a responsibility for employers. Employees don’t show up to work expecting to get hurt. They show up expecting their employer has taken every precaution to provide a safe work environment.
The two sales rule
Businesses need revenue to stay open. In order to make that revenue, they need to constantly attract customers. Marketing is an important part of this process. Why should customers use your services? What makes your product the best option to choose? This same approach is needed for employees. “We’re selling a point of view,” Burns explained, “And that point of view is the safety program.”
He suggests a concept he created called the ‘two sales rule’. There are two sales made when it comes to safety. “The first sale is me, the sales person. The second sale is whatever I’ve got in my briefcase,” he said. “If I don’t make the first sale – me – I’m not making the second.” Trust and respect are vital for employers to have. We’re more willing to listen to those who we trust and respect. Employers who have both from their employees are in a better position to influence their decisions.
Safety engagement: 3 steps to selling a safer point of view
Burns has created a three-step plan to increase safety engagement. Each of his clients goes through this process.
Step 1: Simplify your safety message
Every workplace needs a clear, simple message when it comes to safety. “‘What’s the most important thing that we need to have happen today, tomorrow, next week, next month, even four or five months from now?’,” he asks employers. He often offers the example of a northern Canadian mining company he worked with. The halls and workplace were full of safety posters. Each one had a different message. As a result, employees referred to them as “wallpaper”. Too many different messages meant employees didn’t focus on any specific one.
Burns instructs employers to come up with one core safety message. It should be seven words or less. Every employee should be able to understand it, no matter what position or educational background they have.
Step 2: Provide supervisor support
One of the biggest influences on an employee is their direct supervisor. If a supervisor makes production and numbers the priority for employees, then safety will likely take a backseat. However, if safety is important for the supervisor, it will also be important to the employee. “If the supervisors are carrying it, the crews are buying it,” he added. “Simple as that.”
Often, supervisors are often top-performing employees who have been promoted. Employers see their talent, and want other employees to be more like them. However, supervisors go through a big change once promoted. They go from being a star player to a coach. Their team wants their support and mentorship. They need to be prepared for this new role.
Step 3: Allow employee buy-in to happen
With trust, a clear message, and supervisors leading the charge, Burns finds that employee buy-in follows. One of his favorite examples of successful employee buy-in is of a client, a conveyor belt company. Its technicians fix systems that help clear rocks from mines. The company came up with a three word statement of what they wanted for employees: “Go home proud”. Employees should be proud of their performance. Proud of the work they do. Proud they followed procedures and did the job the way they were trained. Taking shortcuts is something they could do. But it isn’t something they can be proud of.
This change resulted in employees taking pride in their work. They developed a reputation of confidence and efficiency. They are proud of the work they do, and how they do it, and willing to come in every day and do it all again.
An engaged workforce is key to creating a safer workplace. “Safety is not separate from engagement,” Burns concluded. “They are absolutely connected at the hip.” Safety engagement isn’t something that costs employers a lot of money. It’s about changing mindsets. A workplace with an engaged workforce sees higher morale, a better reputation, and lower work comp costs. And eventually, they become the place where current employees – and future ones – want to work.
For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, tune in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode to learn about preparing employees for the unexpected through situational awareness.