Are you committed to protecting employees from workplace hazards but struggling with how to demonstrate that commitment? Are you finding your desire for a safe work environment doesn't resonate with workers? A personal commitment to safety can only be demonstrated through action.

You can use the following strategies to demonstrate your personal commitment to safety:

  • Learn how to be safe.
  • Get visibly involved.
  • Be accessible to employees.
  • Set a positive example.

As we look at each of these strategies in greater depth and discuss specific techniques for applying them, think about potentially dangerous situations you have encountered in the workplace. How could you have applied these concepts in those instances? You might want to make a list of such situations as you go.

Learn how to be safe. A solid understanding of safety rules and concepts forms the foundation for everything else you do in safety management. Unfortunately, procedures describing safety responsibilities are often exhaustive and needlessly complicated. Learning them may require consulting several manuals. Your company can overcome these barriers to understanding safety requirements by:

  • Offering site-specific supervisor safety training.
  • Compiling supervisor safety responsibilities into concise handbooks for easy reference.
  • Obtaining outside materials developed specifically for managers and supervisors.
  • Establishing a policy of interactive, one-on-one training. This involves asking people specific questions about their safety efforts and showing them where to improve.

Get visibly involved. Your employees learn by example. If they don't see you practicing good safety habits, they won't think safety is important. Your visible involvement in safety activities demonstrates this importance and motivates employees to take a greater interest in their own safety. Some ways you can make your commitment more visible include:

  1. Informal worksite visits. These must be part of your routine. Frequent visits demonstrate a constant concern for safety. Infrequent visits give the impression of inconsistent attention to safety — as though it's an afterthought. When performing worksite visits, you should:

    • Look for risky shortcuts that workers take to speed production or save time. For example, they may use a 6-ft ladder instead of taking the time to locate the 8-ft ladder required for the job.
    • Compliment people on their use of safe work practices. For example, when a worker is using a correctly sized ladder you can say: “I notice you are using one of our rare 8-ft ladders instead of a 6-ft ladder for this task. I appreciate your taking the extra time to do the job correctly — and safely.”
    • Correct hazardous conditions and practices on the spot or as soon as possible. For example, if you find a damaged portable cord, stop whatever you are doing and replace it.
  2. Formal inspections. If you understand the difference between safe and unsafe practices, you can better contribute to the inspection. When in doubt concerning safety matters, defer to the judgment of the safety manager. Then make a point of filling the holes in your safety knowledge, so you will know the answer the next time. When making formal inspections, you should:

    • Involve other managers, supervisors, and employees.
    • Accompany safety inspection teams on formal inspections.
    • Stop, look, listen, and observe. Stop moving through the area. Look for problems with equipment guards, access limitations, fall hazards, Code violations, and other dangers associated with the environment of the worker, rather than just the actions of the worker. Listen for potential dangers. Observe work methods for safe and unsafe practices.
    • Take notes, and follow up after the inspection.

Be accessible to employees. Employees should be able to ask you questions and make informal comments about safety issues and concerns. Your willingness to listen attentively and respond appropriately is a major incentive for employees to put safety first. You can be accessible by:

  • Taking extra time during safety inspections to listen to workers.
  • Having an open-door policy so employees can drop by and discuss safety concerns without fear of reprisal. Employees should not have to make appointments for such meetings. Meetings should be casual so employees are comfortable and feel encouraged to make use of the policy.
  • Holding weekly informal lunch meetings between senior managers and eight to 10 workers to discuss safety issues. A different group of managers and workers could participate each week. Such small group meetings can stimulate positive and constructive dialogue between workers and top management.

Set a positive example. Countless studies show the manager's example sets the tone for the employee. Let's look at two examples. Manager A is aggressive and well respected for his ability to get the job done. He has a no-nonsense approach to business, focuses on the tasks at hand, and has high expectations from his work force. Although he claims to be a strong proponent of the safety program, he thinks only certain safety requirements are necessary. On various occasions, others have observed him cross barriers without the prescribed respiratory protection or other protective equipment. He feels justified in not complying with respiratory-protection requirements because he understands his operations and knows when hazards are present. His work force sees him disregard safety requirements, and they behave according to his example.

Manager B also supports the facility safety program. She participates in safety meetings and sets annual safety performance goals for her subordinate managers. Manager B effectively delegates many of her management duties to subordinates. Her ability to delegate improves her operations and allows her to frequently interact with all her employees on safety and health matters, and other issues of concern to them. As a result, her employees are used to seeing her in their workplace and feel comfortable discussing issues with her. Subordinate managers realize Manager B is likely to discover a safety problem and hold them accountable for it, so they maintain a state of readiness. Because Manager B is aware of safety requirements and is always attentive to safety concerns, her employees rarely engage in unsafe work practices.

To set a good example, you must:

  • Know the rules. For example, if you are signing a confined space permit, can you explain to each worker what his or her responsibilities are for that confined space? Can you clearly explain lockout/tagout rules without looking them up? If not, why not? If you don't know the rules, you can't expect your employees to understand them. If they don't understand them, how can they follow them? If you don't know them, how can you enforce them?
  • Follow the rules exactly. Once you start modifying the rules, you erode their value. It doesn't take many instances of simply interpreting the rules or claiming something is a special situation before the rules become irrelevant to the workers. This happened with confined space entry in an extrusion plant. For years, management had waived so many requirements that, in practice, all the workers did was fill out a tag and affix it to the entryway. A new manager had a very difficult time enforcing confined space entry, because the employees weren't used to being held accountable.
  • Make sure your subordinate managers, peer managers, and higher managers follow the rules. Your position allows you to tell subordinate managers they must comply. With peers, you will need to use tools of persuasion rather than authority. With upper managers, you'll need to explain their support makes it easier for you to enforce the rules. Honest communication, handled properly, should gain you the cooperation you need.

It's often difficult for senior managers to get honest feedback on their safety performance from their subordinates. Lack of negative feedback doesn't necessarily mean your safety performance is acceptable. In addition to requesting safety performance feedback directly, managers should consider using a suggestion system or anonymous employee surveys to gather such information. The Sidebar at the right gives tips on how to get feedback. Give serious consideration to all feedback, and you'll reveal real and perceived concerns. Either type of concern can negatively affect a safety program.

It's a canon in the field of management that “people rarely rise above their leadership.” This principle is true in a safety program. However, if you demonstrate your concern for the safety of your workforce by your actions, the results can be outstanding performance in safety.

Duncan is an executive vice president of PrSM Corp. in Knoxville, Tenn.