Leveraging Safety as a Catalyst for Industry Change
26 October 2023 - Evotix
For decades, safety management has been a key component of the corporate landscape. Legislation designed to keep workers and the public safe from harm has driven incident numbers down dramatically. In this way, EHS professionals have a lot to feel proud of.
However, ramped up levels of regulation have also nurtured a safety culture driven by compliance. As companies struggle to adhere to the latest directives, their approach to safety is often reactive rather than proactive. This outlook fails to capture the transformational potential of safety within an organization. By adopting a fresh approach and embedding safety at the heart of an organization, safety professionals can unlock opportunities to optimize business performance and drive employee engagement.
In this post, we’ll explore why it’s time to think differently about safety, how to bring about this change and why it will ultimately pay off.
The cultural challenges of EHS
The evolution of the EHS sector can be traced right back to the Industrial Revolution, with legislation created in reaction to appalling conditions in Victorian factories. While the following years have witnessed the rapid evolution of the EHS industry, the driver remains the same. Countless pieces of legislation have radically improved working conditions, but legislation has driven the agenda.
And it has delivered plenty. The numbers speak for themselves - in the US, worker deaths have decreased from around 38 a day in 1970 to 13 a day in 2020, and worker illnesses and injuries are down from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.7 per 100 in 2020. Incidents have dropped dramatically and working environments have been made progressively and immeasurably safer for all concerned.
In recent years, however, these numbers have plateaued. Without even considering the skewing effects of the Covid pandemic, figures of incidences have remained stubbornly at similar levels for several years
The barrier to change seems to stem from the cultural inheritance of the EHS sector. An accumulation of legislation means that compliance has driven the conversation. While it has helped significantly slash the numbers, this approach can only take us so far.
The last few years have undoubtedly seen the start of a shift in focus. Removing the blame culture and underlining the importance of trust have both been important elements in reframing the debate around safety. But all too often the conversation or the metrics are entirely negative – looking at numbers of incidences or near misses. A more positive approach would build a more constructive conversation – for example looking at the safest team and what they’re doing right. This approach would drive more positive change and ultimately benefit business performance.
But resetting the agenda like this means thinking about safety in a new way, weaving it into the fabric of an organization and powering its potential to drive change more widely.
Embedding safety: commitment from the top
All too often safety is set apart from the rest of the business and siloed from the rest of the organization. We talk of a safety culture but never a financial or operational culture. Safety is seen as separate, removed from the rest of the business.
By adjusting this approach, changing the mentality and integrating safety more effectively at the heart of business operations, safety becomes second nature. Employees will perform better and further improvement will be made possible. The key to this embedding safety within your organization is communication. If safety only looks at procedures, measured against documentation and regulation, the progress that can be made is limited. People begin to follow the blueprint of a procedure unquestioningly.
Instead, by talking to your employees, allowing them to challenge the way they do things, share their experiences around mistakes and garner their ideas, a more constructive dialogue can develop. By changing the conversation around failure and empowering people to challenge procedures, you can help them improve their performance and build better business outcomes.
Employees are the ones delivering the vision and are the ones who will make the difference, so they need to feel engaged and listened to. By involving the full workforce in the process, organizations can use the expertise of their people to drive positive change within the business.
How to build an environment for cultural change
How is it possible to build an environment for ground-breaking thought to flourish? How can organizations seamlessly embed safe operations? And how can they harness the potential of the safety agenda to drive positive change more widely in the business?
The success of all organizations relies on their people. Happy employees are reputed to be up to 20% more productive than unhappy ones, so it’s crucial that employees feel valued. By placing the workforce at the heart of the safety agenda rather than relying solely on processes, you can drive positive change. Here are some concrete steps you can take:
Open the conversation – talk to workers in different parts of the organization and listen to the challenges they face to better understand ways to improve the business.
Prioritize people – when an incident occurs, talk to the people concerned. The process part comes later. This way, you build trust that will help improve processes for the future.
Encourage challenge – ask for suggestions as to how processes can be improved.
Demonstrate trust in your workforce – empower your employees to feel they are driving positive change in the business.
Focus on the positives – reframe the safety agenda in a positive light to concentrate on the most effective performance and drive continuous improvement.
Rethinking the future of safety
Companies have a huge opportunity. By positioning safety at the heart of your operations and integrating it in the right way, you can tap into the potential within your own workforce, building employee engagement and improving the way they operate to transform their performance. True change, however, necessitates thinking about safety in a new way and taking a more proactive, collaborative approach. Companies that do this effectively will be reaping the benefits for years to come.
To learn more about how you can engage your employees and promote positive change throughout your organization, check out our blog: Why an Empathetic Leadership Approach Is the Key to Safety Management
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