Simply getting the basics right provides the foundation for developing a good safety culture in the workplace. In the first of a series of articles on the subject, BRIAN DARLINGTON offers some advice

I often hear representatives of companies saying that they have developed good safety cultures in their operations or organisations. However, closer investigation sometimes reveals that they have not always fully understood the concept.

Having zero incidents, or a system of reporting close calls, or conducting “visible felt” audits does not necessarily mean a company has implemented a good safety culture – so much more is required than simply achieving milestones relating to a set of indicators. In fact, a number of elements need to be in place before one can truly boast a good safety culture!

Each of these elements will be addressed in a series of Safety from the Heart articles in the months that follow, with the first of these being unpacked here – namely, getting the basics right!

So often industry leaders, or safety and health professionals, tend to overcomplicate safety and health programmes and controls. In doing so, they fail to get the essentials right. So, rather than focusing on the complicated, leaders need to focus on the fundamentals!

What do we mean by “getting the basics right?” It’s about not trying to do everything, but, instead, focusing on the issues that will make people proud to be part of the company.

It’s about leadership putting the well-being of employees first; ensuring appropriate hygiene facilities and good housekeeping standards; making safety the easy option and having a structured and consistent approach to systems and controls; developing clear and consistent messaging; and getting buy-in and understanding from all levels in the organisation – from leadership to employees on the factory floor.

To achieve this, there are a few things on which management can and should be focusing:

SPOKEN AND UNSPOKEN LANGUAGE

Be mindful of the spoken and the unspoken language at the operation.

The spoken language is what leaders, first-line managers and employees are saying about safety controls, on both official and unofficial platforms – for example, at regular safety health and environment (SHE) meetings as well as during coffee breaks!

Often, the spoken language can be conflicting. For example, an organisation’s leadership may make it clear that employees have the right to stop a machine if a person’s safety is at risk. The first-line manager or team leader may, however, mention that the machine is to continue running no matter what!

In situations like these, the safety message is not aligned and, if not addressed, management runs the risk of safety procedures being ignored.

The unspoken language, while potentially less obvious, is as important as the spoken language. It includes, for example, the visual design and physical layout of equipment, behaviour and information (for example SHE posters), and should be aligned with the effort and drive to provide safe working environments.

To demonstrate, some time ago I walked through a manufacturing site where, hanging above each of the production lines was an enormous 16 m² banner that reflected the production record achieved, together with a photograph of the team responsible for those results.

In addition, on the same production floor was a safety poster that warned people of the dangers of moving and rotating equipment – but it was printed on an A4 page and placed on a distant wall too far to be legible for most. The unspoken message was clear: Production is King.

While celebrating good production results is important and necessary, leaders must be mindful of the unspoken language suggesting that safety is less important! In this particular case, it would have been a good alternative to include the word “safe” in the message on the oversized banner – to simply read “safe production record” – and to include the company’s safety logo! That way, the unspoken language would have conveyed a very different and far more powerful message.

CHANGE THAT IS VISIBLE AND UNDERSTOOD

Make sure employees are informed of and understand management’s efforts to bring about positive change, and make sure those changes are visible.

As part of the efforts to ensure a safer working environment and improved safety performance, I convinced the managing director of one of our operations to reverse park when on site – the logic being that it allows for improved vision when leaving a parking bay. This is especially relevant at workplaces where speed of evacuation is potentially important, for example at a chemical plant.

With the MD immediately reverse parking and with his parking bay visible to all, the hope was that other employees would follow. Sadly, this was not the case, so during our annual Making a Difference Day – a day, across the Group, dedicated to safety, health and environmental issues – we explained to employees why reverse parking was important.

Within seven months, the vast majority of employees at that operation were reverse parking! It was immediately evident that the change had come about not through the introduction of another safety standard, but rather by having taken the time to explain why reverse parking was the preferred option. This approach ensured buy-in and ultimately developed the habit.

When safety efforts of management are visible and understood by employees, they are better able to support management’s aims. And, through broader employee support, companies can ensure greater impact through more effective implementation.

GOOD HOUSEKEEPING STANDARDS

Never underestimate the importance of setting and maintaining a high standard of housekeeping.

The environment plays an important role in how we implement and manage safety in the workplace – and has a positive (or negative) ripple effect on many other aspects of business, including production, maintenance, logistics and engineering.

When working in an organised, neat, uncluttered environment, employees and contractors tend to take more care of the people and objects around them; they take more pride in their work and show more respect. They also tend to consider their own safety as well as that of others when conducting their activities – and, of course, the reverse appears to be the trend when those working spaces are disorganised, untidy and cluttered.

Setting and maintaining a high standard of housekeeping needs to precede any safety and health programme. It contributes directly to achieving higher safety standards and improved performance, and is a really good place to start in your journey to a good safety culture.

UNCLUTTERED SAFETY BRANDING AND MESSAGES

Keep all safety branding, signage and messages clear, relevant and visible.

Having an inordinate number of safety signs posted up throughout an operation does not necessarily increase understanding of safety risks, nor does it necessarily prevent injuries. Indeed, an over cluttering of safety signs can, in fact, cause confusion.

Safety signage needs to be strategically designed with clear, relevant messaging and impactful visuals so that it can be easily understood by all. The signage also needs to be well positioned for the greatest influence.

Yes, safety signs have a role in ensuring an understanding of risks. However, over-cluttering results in confusion and, over time, people no longer notice them.

The common trend is to take a photo of an operator dressed in the required personal protective clothing and equipment and to do away with the individual symbolic safety signs depicting what is required when entering the area. The photo is transferred onto a life-size board and placed at entrances to working areas.

It’s important that safety messages and posters are relevant and directly relate to the actual tasks and risks of the sector in which they are posted. Safety messaging should also be refreshed from time to time, and all visual aids – banners, posters and leaflets – rotated on a regular basis. Safety messages and signage that is clear, relevant and visible ensures that, as time passes, people continue to notice and be reminded of risks.

CREATE A CALM WORKING ENVIRONMENT

Do everything that can be done to promote a stress-free working environment.

Places of work can, by definition, be stressful. This stress, if not avoidable, can at least be mitigated. For example, I was recently in Auckland, New Zealand, and needed a haircut. I found a barbershop in the city centre and, on entering, realised there were seven other men in the queue.

Joining the line, I overheard the barber saying to a customer, with a level of frustration in his voice, that a colleague was late for work – and that was the reason for the growing queue.

As time passed, some of the customers became increasingly restless. Two people actually walked out  and the barber became increasingly anxious. At this point, I decided to test my view of the impact of workplace stress on people’s behaviour. Still waiting in the queue, I purposely kept looking at my watch whenever I caught the attention of the barber in the mirror.

He repeatedly mentioned that he was sure his colleague would arrive soon, simultaneously trying hard to speed up the task at hand so as to move to the next customer.

Just as in the barbershop, when people in industry feel stressed they are easily distracted, show potential to rush through the task and are, therefore, at greater risk of injury and/or delivering sub-standard work.

The issuing of permits to work during large industrial projects provides a good example: at one time, there can potentially be ten or more contracting company representatives anxiously waiting to receive their permits, putting unnecessary stress and frustration on the issuer. The result could be permits that are not completed correctly with key elements, hazards and requirements not being included or addressed sufficiently.

For this reason, industry leaders need to be aware of and mitigate workplace stress levels wherever possible. A calm work environment facilitates positive employee response and contributes directly to a good safety culture.

Summary

Leaders and safety professionals need to have a strategic approach to the development of all safety and health initiatives and controls. Less is more, and simply getting the basics right provides the foundation for developing a good safety culture.

As a starting point to getting the basics right, get buy-in when developing initiatives, controls, rules and procedures and minimise bureaucracy; ensure good housekeeping; be mindful of the spoken and unspoken languages throughout the operation and aim for consistency across all; make visible changes that employees are aware of and understand; remove excessive safety signs and make sure those that remain are clearly understood, visible and relevant; and, wherever possible, create a calm working environment.

All these efforts, no matter how basic they seem, contribute directly to a proficient safety and health strategic plan, a good safety culture and, ultimately, the common objective of being able to send everybody home safely, every day.

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