Many of us in safety use the widely-accepted definition of employee accountability as “the responsibility of employees to complete the tasks they are assigned, to perform the duties required by their job, and to be present for their proper shifts to fulfill or further the goals of the organization.” That’s it? This definition falls short of what we should really expect from engaged and safety-focused employees. It simply states that employees should show up on time, do their jobs, and go home. So, how do you get employees to take personal and group accountability for your safety programs?
As uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge, the first step is getting management out of the way.
Establish Employee Ownership
- Build a team of employee volunteers from all areas and all levels of your organization (including management) who are interested in developing a new health and safety program or evaluating your company’s current plan. Give ownership to this group.
- Lay out a timeline and communication plan that makes the group’s work, and more importantly, employee ownership, completely visible to the entire organization.
- Develop an input mechanism for non-team members to comment on and contribute to the program. Even if an employee chooses not to participate, he/she will have more connection if they feel they had the opportunity to participate, and that their coworkers were an integral part of the process.
- Do not solve employees’ problems for them. If asked for help, guide them to develop the solution themselves. If you hear “I don’t know” as an answer, break the issue into manageable pieces and ask questions to guide them to create and think about options.
1. Guide your team in establishing attainable goals both at the organization and individual levels. This might include several layers, for example, employee, department, and company-specific goals.
2. Set employees up for success – give them the resources they need to reach these goals. These resources include time away from their daily operational responsibilities to set up safety programs, technology to support safety activities, or investment in operational changes.
1. Help your team to define performance review timing and criteria based on the established expectations. Review progress frequently and visibly.
2. Utilize employee review committees for group performance. Do not take this back from the employees. They have just spent significant time developing and implementing their own initiatives. If management comes in and takes control of the review process, it will likely feel disempowering, resulting in lower employee engagement.
This is a tricky one. In rewarding employee successes, you can inadvertently highlight failures in other staff members. The key to effective reward is setting up visible, attainable, and clear goals with predefined rewards. These rewards should be tokens of minor value, but high visibility.
Bonuses that work include safety logo t-shirts to workers serving on safety and health committees, throwing a recognition party at the successful completion of companywide safety and health training, or modest gifts ($10 Starbucks, McDonald’s, or gas card) for outstanding contribution to your safety programs.
Once you have developed or revamped your program, roll it out loudly! Hold a kickoff event, even if it is a simple pizza party, coffee and donuts in the morning, or a company-wide meeting. If your employees wear uniforms, incorporate a safety slogan on the garment when you place a new order.
Individual Employee Accountability
There are two components to every employee’s individual focus on safety. First is their own personal safety and how they act in the workplace. This includes how they do their jobs, and how they respond to the workspace and activity around them. The second is how they proactively build a safe environment for the company, including their own departments and work area, to the broader operation. You want your employees to be fully accountable for both pieces.
Traditional safety programs focus on the individual component only, and often make any action outside of how an employee conducts their own work off limits. How many times have we all heard “that’s not my area, not my responsibility?”
Employees must be encouraged and supported in reporting incidents, near misses, and potential safety hazards, both in their own space and actions, and anywhere else in your operation. This is no easy feat to accomplish, especially if you are coming from a place where employees have not been encouraged to, or have even been punished when they reported injuries, illnesses, or safety hazards.
How do you make this cultural shift?
Do not make reporting an incident an opportunity for management to punish or discipline the employee. Make it an opportunity to correct the action or situation. Use an employee based review committee to determine corrective actions, including processes, equipment, communication, and yes, even discipline if necessary. Employees must feel free to report incidents or injuries, or the entire workforce is put at risk. The goal is to learn from the incident, not to retaliate against the employee. Unreported incidents, including near misses, leave dangerous situations in place, and will eventually result in an injury. Ultimately, that can lead to higher workers’ compensation costs.
The bottom line to imbedding employee safety accountability into your operation is to put your safety program into the hands of your employees. Guide them in the design, communication, roll-out, and ongoing implementation of the processes and procedures. Be a role model, throw your management weight behind them, and be transparent with what is feasible and realistic. Take the fear out of reporting incidents by responding quickly and positively to resolving safety threats, and putting any disciplinary actions in the hands of an employee committee. Publicize and act on your commitment to the program.
There is no doubt about it. Successful safety programs are good for a company’s bottom line. Just ask Paul O’Neill, former CEO of aluminum giant Alcoa, who quintupled the struggling company’s profits in his 13 years as CEO by initially focusing on an employee safety program. Start with this brief article and Google as many more as you need to be convinced. The evidence is clear.