I reckon that the occupational health and safety professional at any given job site is often the least popular person around. He or she is seen as the person who just makes everyone miserable with their constant nit-picking and criticism.
This, to me, is one of the fundamental problems the safety industry faces, and we tend to do it to ourselves.
The focus in the safety business tends to be very negative—What are the hazards? What did the worker do wrong? What documentation was forgotten? What process failed?
For instance, I’ve seen any number of inspection forms that are designed to document problems, with little or no thought to documenting what was good! After a while, the expectation is that every time a site inspection happens, it means there will be a bunch of negativity thrown around and everyone, from the top of the totem pole to the bottom, gets into that negative frame of mind.
But it is still possible to turn that wagon train around and blaze a new trail. Something I always insist on is that every documented inspection have at least one positive comment written on it. If the workers had their pre-job hazard assessments complete, write it down—and tell the workers you appreciate their efforts! If the housekeeping is in good shape, make note of it. If everyone is wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment, congratulate them on doing things the right way.
Provide positive reinforcement for the things you want to see and you’re likely to get more of the same. More than that, you might start to change the perception that the safety team are nothing but low-down varmints looking to cause trouble.
Take time every day to talk to your team out in the field, get to know them, learn about their lives and what makes them happy. And celebrate all the things they are doing right. By fostering an environment where safety is not seen as a negative and a burden, you’ll get better buy-in, more personal investment into the process and a generally better attitude from the team.
When participating in a safety meeting, make sure to discuss the good things that people are doing to keep each other safe—talk about goals achieved, people who took the initiative to fix something before it became a problem, new procedures that will improve the health and safety of everyone.
Incentive programs to reward good behaviour can sometimes have pitfalls—sometimes they become an expectation regardless of performance; sometimes people who get away with bad behaviour get rewarded anyway. But planning an effective incentive program that rewards positive behaviour can be a great addition to your safety program when properly executed.
Obviously, if something is noted that poses an imminent hazard to life and health, work needs to be stopped immediately and the situation must be addressed. Likewise, if a substandard act or condition is present on site, it needs to be corrected. The key function of safety—to prevent injuries, damage, and loss of process—must always be kept in mind.
But don’t allow the job to be all about finding the deficiencies. Don’t set yourself up for everyone to get stressed out every time you come talk to them. Always remember that a pat on the back for a job well done is at least as important as a boot to the rear when something is wrong.
Article originally published in Buck Up! Magazine, Issue 2, December, 2014
Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org