An old adage often applied to parenting is equally germane to safety in the workplace: [Safety] values are “caught” not “taught.” A recent survey of leading safety experts reaffirmed this point. Here are their top seven recommendations, in order of importance.

1. Leadership: A commitment to safety by all levels of management is the most important element in safety success. Senior management must be committed enough to invest resources in their safety teams and systems. All levels of management should lead by example. Executives should exemplify discipline even when safety concerns appear to infringe on production and efficiency. Leaders must not be exempted from following safety rules and should demonstrate knowledge of safety rules that apply to their work environment. Accountability begins at the top.

2. Culture: Management’s commitment must be translated into a corporate culture that refuses to tolerate shortcuts and compromises. This commitment should be spelled out in policies, newsletters, web pages, announcements, signage, etc. so that every aspect of the work life is steeped in safety. The commitment should be evident during the recruitment process – hiring managers should question candidates to discern their compatibility with a safe organization. And the commitment should be tangible in the disciplinary process – infractions that endanger people or put equipment at risk must have consequences.

3. Employee Involvement: Empowering employees with more control over their work product has been shown to bring tangible results to product quality. Empowering them in certain aspects of workplace safety usually results in better safety outcomes. Beware that empowerment must not equate to abandonment. Workers should be given autonomy to pursue safety for themselves and their co-workers, but they should be equipped with sufficient knowledge and supervised attentively to help them make good decisions. Senior management should consider periodic rotation of safety leadership roles so workers receive multiple opportunities to learn and teach important concepts. Workers should be willing to pledge a commitment to safety as a prerequisite for employment. Safety procedures should be embraced by trade unions. Personal accountability is paramount.

4. Communication: The effective communication of safety concepts is intimately linked to corporate safety culture. Culture won’t thrive without communication, and communication won’t be consistent in the absence of culture. Communication should be both verbal and non-verbal. Warning signs should be maintained or replaced when worn or obstructed. Consider establishing a daily “safety minute” or “toolbox talk” to heighten worker awareness. Employees observed to fall short of workplace standards should be personally counseled to motivate and instruct them in their safety duties.

5. Inspection, Maintenance: An inspection is simultaneously a “carrot” and “stick.” When a safety supervisor makes frequent appearances in work areas, employees recognize the organization is committed to safety, and they will be motivated to participate. For the small number of employees who are less than fully committed, the prospect of being “caught” doing a task unsafely is a deterrent. Safety standards often enumerate which inspection and maintenance tasks should occur daily, weekly, monthly, semi-annually or annually for a workplace to be “in compliance.” Materials and systems should be maintained regularly to expose replace aged or worn materials. Guards, interlocks and warning signs should be checked regularly, and every inspection should be documented.

6. Accident Investigation: When accidents occur – no matter how minor – an investigation should be performed. When the accident is due to a simple failure to follow procedure, findings can be documented in a relatively simple manner. When the incident is due to a more complex sequence of errors or failures, a root-cause analysis should be performed. If an in-house investigation is not possible because of limited expertise or time availability, outside specialists should be retained. A lessons-learned notebook or website should be available to employees so mistakes can be avoided in the future and safety procedures can be re-evaluated. Relevant investigation findings can be incorporated into a mandatory risk assessment, which is performed when a new system is designed and commissioned.

7. Training: Although worker training is important, it ranked at the bottom of the list of safety specialists polled. Clearly, employees must have the knowledge they need to perform their work, and they must have the skill and insight to recognize a potentially unsafe situation. However, training alone will not ensure a safe workplace. Workers should be instructed in the importance of company procedures (e.g., lock-out/tag-out), but they should also understand the importance of engineering controls (e.g., guards and safety devices) and why they should never be defeated.

Fortunately, the safety habit is contagious, and “catching” it can make all the difference. IH