Safety in Teams

Fostering a Culture of Safety

Safety in Teams - Fostering a Culture of Safety

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Gambling with team members' safety can lead to trouble.

Imagine this scenario: Your plant is chosen to be part of a new company initiative.

As the supervisor, you're instructed to recruit team members who are willing to work significant overtime to increase production by 25% over the next week. If you achieve this goal, everyone involved will receive a big raise – and the higher production output will become the new benchmark.

Lots of people volunteer, and everyone quickly gets to work. A few days later, however, you begin to notice that your team doesn't look well. They're exhausted, and they're starting to make mistakes. You wonder if you should take some of them off the production line to rest – but you realize that if you do, the team won't reach their goal. You decide to leave them there, assuming that they'll know when to slow down.

The next day, the unthinkable happens. An exhausted worker makes a serious error on one of the machines, and he's seriously injured. Production stops when the machine has to be fixed, and the delay means that the goal won't be reached by anyone.

Have you ever heard about or witnessed situations like this? Have you been part of one yourself? Unfortunately, it's all too common in many industries. Business owners and managers set ambitious goals or practices, but they often don't think enough about the consequences for the team that's actually doing the work.

But this is such an important thing to do. After all, who wants to be responsible – and held responsible – for the death or permanent injury of another human being?

Risk vs. Reward – Finding the Right Balance

Without fully thinking through a policy or process, even the best intentions can have negative consequences.

A good example of this is a company that rewards a production line or warehouse for each month with no reported workplace injuries. The reward is a financial bonus for everyone at the plant. While this sounds like a nice goal, it might simply make managers less likely to report when a worker is injured, or it might motivate workers to keep quiet about injuries.

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The injured workers are the ones who, ultimately, have the most difficult choice. Do they report accidents, knowing that their peers won't earn a nice bonus – or do they say nothing about the injuries, and perhaps not receive proper medical care or compensation?

Failure to report problems can also lead to another negative consequence: upper management may not learn things they need to know. What if a machine or business practice needs fixing, but no one is notified? Managers and business owners must look for policies and practices that have this potential.

Risky Business Practices: What to Look For

Promoting a safe work environment for your team is no small task. Whether you work at a huge manufacturing plant or in a small office, there are always risks – both hidden and obvious.

Also, each country has different standards for identifying what is and is not safe. This makes it more challenging to create a list of practices that work for all industries around the world.

There are, however, a few tips you can use to make your team safer and to create an environment that's healthy.

  • Analyze your metrics, reward programs, and business practices – Do these practices encourage any hidden or harmful behaviors? Do your incentives, which are designed to motivate your staff to achieve a high volume of work, also lead them to skip safety checks? Could your incentives discourage reporting? Do managers properly maintain machinery, or do they demand high usage levels, which don't leave time for injury-preventing maintenance tasks?
  • Change the way you look at safety – Instead of offering a reward for no reported injuries, reward your team for safe behavior. Create a safety committee, and reward everyone who volunteers.
  • Reward reports of safety hazards – Offer incentives for people to report safety hazards they find on the job. Some companies have a point system to inspire their teams. For each safety hazard that workers report, or each safety improvement card that they complete, team members receive points. They can then "cash in" points and use them for fun prizes or job-related tools.
  • Reward safety improvement ideas and fixes – You could offer bigger rewards to team members who fix a safety problem on their own, instead of relying on upper management to handle the issue. However, be careful with this: You don't want workers to try to fix parts or machines when they're not qualified to do so – they may risk injuring themselves or damaging the machines.
  • Communicate the importance of safety – Use storytelling as a way to spread the message about safety. If team members make a great suggestion or find a major problem, put it in the next company newsletter. Make them feel great about what they've contributed to, and you'll make safety part of the workplace culture.
  • Don't wait for an accident to happen – Some business owners don't investigate their work environment until after an accident or injury occurs. The accident "reveals" the problem, which then gets fixed. Almost all accidents can be prevented, so spend time and resources studying your situation to uncover potential problems – and fix them BEFORE the accident happens.
  • Choose your words carefully – Many businesses do an "accident investigation" after something happens. But the word "investigation" may seem negative. It might make your team think that you're trying to find someone to blame, causing them to feel uncomfortable about reporting future accidents. The term "incident analysis" is a better choice – it doesn't sound negative or threatening.
  • Discuss issues with your team – Chances are that your workers are well aware of some safety hazards, or problems in current business practices, that might take you days – or weeks – to discover. Find out which processes make them uncomfortable, and take corrective action. When your staff sees that their contributions have resulted in something good, everyone will be more willing to speak up in the future.

Key Points

It doesn't matter whether you work in a manufacturing plant or a web design business, every company has challenges with safety. The key to getting your team involved, and to promoting a culture of safety, is to make sure you don't unintentionally motivate people to not report accidents.

Instead, focus on creating practices that reward your team for safe behavior. Encourage workers to find hazards on their own, and make them feel good when they do. The more you emphasize safety as a core value in your business, the better your team is likely to respond.

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Comments (6)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hello reded,

    Welcome to the club. There is a truism in business that says you get the behaviour and results you reward and recognize. When defining safety policy and developing safety programs, we need to think carefully about the outcomes and behaviours we reward.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago reded wrote
    only award for positive outcomes but dont awaard for the negative of short outcomes
  • Over a month ago keng wrote
    Hi pirate_king,

    Do you have a formal safety recognition program? Do you specifically reward people for safe behavior? If that's what you're doing and it's not working, may you need a zero tolerance policy?

    It sounds like you have the right systems in place so it's not a matter of inadvertently rewarding unsafe behavior, it's a matter of people not thinking. (I can appreciate the idea of Darwin's theory of Natural Selection at work, I've seen more than a few incidents in the workplace that qualify for that too!) Maybe you have to try negative consequences if positive reward hasn't worked? It doesn't have to be disciplinary consequences. If you make the person who does something unsafe have to check in with a supervisor before doing any activity with specific safety requirements the stigma of having to be checked might be a deterrent. Kind of like giving them a babysitter at work? Or you take them off that task and substitute with other less desirable tasks for a period of time? I'm just brainstorming here but it seems to me that if you are sure your systems themselves aren't creating the problem and you continue to reward safe behavior then you have to do the opposite to squash out any unsafe behavior.
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