How to inspire safety?

Do as I say…and as I do: How to inspire safe behaviour in the workplace

In this blog, guest author Philip Baker, a director at the British Safety Industry Federation, shares some soundbites for inspiring company-wide health and safety compliance. 

“Do as I say, not as I do”. It’s an approach that is frowned upon in parenting psychology circles for being both autocratic and hypocritical. 

Nevertheless, this behaviour can still be witnessed daily in homes across the UK.

“Will you get off that screen!” chides the exasperated parent, despite having whiled away the last half hour on social media.

These double standards are replicated in a health and safety context on workplace floors across the UK on a daily basis too. 

For example, too often, senior managers will breeze ear-defender-less through a designated hearing protection zone where workers are under strict instruction to wear ear defenders and may be disciplined for not doing so.

“It’s one rule for them, another for everyone else,” is the resentful grumble that this behaviour elicits from the disgruntled workforce. 

Rule #1 lead by example

They have a point. The number one rule in inspiring safe behaviour throughout an organisation is to walk the talk; in other words, to lead by example rather than by doctrine. 

But setting the tone is pointless if, the minute the manager leaves the area, the workers remove their ear defenders. Those employees haven’t bought into the company’s health and safety agenda. Most likely because they don’t fully appreciate the risks associated with being exposed to noise pollution and were never involved in the setting of the ear defender rule in the first place. It could also be because of over-attenuation - the employees aren’t wearing the ear defenders because they can’t hear anything and feel isolated. 

So what would be the right approach?

Rule #2 engage employees in assessing risks

The starting point for getting employees on side and on board with health and safety policies is to get them to understand the problem before you work with them to find a solution for mitigating the risk. Or even better…before they work out a ‘solution’ for themselves.  

Once people understand the reason for a rule, they are far more likely to adhere to that rule, and even more so if they are involved in the rule-making process.

People like to feel involved and to feel they are valued as individuals. This is the key to getting people on side with health and safety: treat them as individual human beings in the same way that you would like to be treated yourself.

Returning to the hearing protection example, a consultative approach would make employees aware of the risk of hearing damage and would make management aware that employees can feel isolated when wearing hearing protection that over attenuates. This would allow them to jointly identify solutions to these issues. For example, selecting hearing protection with the right sound reduction properties or protectors with built-in electronic communication facilities.

Rule #3 involve employees in equipment selection

Company X has invested several hundred pounds in 20 pairs of safety boots in a variety of sizes for personnel, yet when senior management visit, they notice that not even the supervisors are wearing them. 

The explanation: they don’t fit properly and are uncomfortable to drive in. 

The learning: discomfort is a significant reason for non-compliance with PPE. Had management consulted employees in the first place, they would have discovered this.

The solution: involve employees in the selection of safety footwear to ensure correct sizing and comfort. This would have resulted in a different purchasing decision, such as good-fitting safety boots or possibly even safety trainers, which provide both protection and comfort when toe and mid-sole protection is sufficient.

This scenario demonstrates the value and importance of engaging employees in the process of equipment selection. 

Again, taking the ear protection example from earlier, involving the workforce in the selection process might have alerted management to the issue of over-attenuation and led to the selection of a product, perhaps an earplug, with a lower attenuation rating. 

Five steps to compliance

Here is a step-by-step summary for ensuring company-wide health and safety compliance:

  • Carry out a risk assessment to identify the health and safety issues you need to address, involving employees in the activity.
  • Encourage employees to come up with solutions to control the issues identified. 
  • If protective equipment forms part of the solution, engage employees in the selection of this equipment.
  • Implement the solutions you have jointly identified, reinforcing them through exemplary leadership.
  • At every step, communicate what you are doing and why this is important.

About the author

A structural engineer, Philip Baker, has spent the last 25 years in health and safety for a comprehensive range of clients.  As well as running health & safety consultancy BPS Solutions, Philip holds several non-executive director positions for health & safety organisations and sits on and chairs a number of industry committees.  Amongst these roles, Philip is on the board of the British Safety Industry Federation, the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants’ Register and the Association for Project Safety.