Safety Leadership: More Than a Checklist | The WorkSAFE Podcast

How do you create a true safety culture in the workplace? Senior Safety Trainer Mark Woodward explains how business owners and managers can develop safety leadership in their employees to see safety as more than a check in an OSHA box, and truly believe in safety. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which you can also hear using the player.

Why do some businesses look at safety training as a burden instead of looking at the reasons behind those rules?

I think when it comes to safety, a lot of companies think automatically about compliance. They think about OSHA, the EPA and the regulatory world. They understand insurance, and they see it as sort of a burden from a regulatory and insurance standpoint. So when we talk about safety, companies might automatically think, “Oh, well that’s OSHA,” and about needing to be compliant with all of these governmental regulations. What happens is that people get turned off. They’re business owners, not safety experts – and for some of these regulations, you have to be an expert to interpret them and determine how they fit your organization. So for small business owners who are already wearing multiple hats and doing everything themselves, the idea of creating an extensive safety program to meet compliance requirements is very difficult. They just can’t do it.

There are a lot of online resources – worksafecenter.com is one – that try to break that down and say, “Listen, you’re a small employer. Let’s just start with the basics.” What is acceptable for your employers to do on the job? What are your expectations from a safety standpoint? Wear your safety gear. Wear your seatbelt. Don’t come to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You can start there.

Think about it this way: Safety is the ultimate investment in your people. When you conduct these safety meetings, you’re saying, “There is no reason to get yourself hurt at work.” No one expects that of their employees.

“With safety, the key is having that passion.”

You really have to believe in safety. You have to believe in protecting your people. It’s a belief system. So if you’re just doing safety meetings and having people sign in to stay compliant with OSHA, that meeting has no impact. I’ve been to safety meetings where they led people in, about 15 people were sitting around, and the business owner said “good luck” and left. Those employees know that safety meeting is just to check the box.

Step one is just to believe in safety; actually care about safety. And I know we all do – no business owner wants to see somebody hurt. But to really make people think about it, you have to be impactful. It’s like a teacher, or a preacher. They have an impact when they truly care about the subject. Think about the people in your life who actually have a passion for something. They’re really good.

Here’s what else makes safety impactful: When people are breaking the rules, stop them and write them up. When somebody’s consistently breaking safety rules, their time is going to run up, and when it does it’s very costly for the business. It’s obviously costly for the employee, because they’re going to lose a finger, or an eye, or have some type of injury.

Employee wearing "safety first" shirt

For safety leadership, the key that people miss is having that passion and making employees believe that we believe in it.

With today’s technology, many employees are taking their work home with them every day. What concerns should leadership have about this shift in working behavior?

We’ve really seen the line blurring between work and home life. It’s not often that a business owner tells employees to go home, stay home, and put the phone away. And then, even when a supervisor does tell them to do that, they won’t do it. They’ll still log in and check their email, and monitor the things they need to. How many of us have been reading emails on Saturday morning, or even Saturday night late at one or two in the morning – and then a coworker sends you an email at two in the morning? You’re both up! We’re never really off work anymore.

We’re seeing a lot of studies now about worker fatigue. People don’t get enough sleep anymore. They come to work and drink coffee or energy drinks. We’re really trading our health and safety for information and multitasking. In a dangerous workplace, fatigue is a huge issue.

Is there a difference between how large and small businesses should approach safety leadership?

Roofer uses fall protection harness

No, there’s really not. At least in the government regulation world, there is no difference. OSHA standards are OSHA standards; it doesn’t matter who you are. And you know, an injury is an injury whether it occurs in a large or small workplace. The common hazards are the same: gravity, weather, other people.

In my opinion, though, the smaller business is at a greater financial risk because a larger company can absorb things more easily. They have more money, more people, more overtime budget. But if a small employer with a small policy, paying maybe $8,000 a year for work comp, has a $50,000 claim, their policy is way more volatile.

I get it. Many small businesses are employing friends and family. It can be difficult to correct your own brother out on the job site or in the office. If you’ve known people for years, it can be weird to have a safety meeting with them. But those are things you have to do, because imagine that brother, or sister, or friend, being seriously hurt. In those cases, you have to work even harder to protect those folks, because they’re your close relationships.

You’re clearly passionate about safety. How do you handle safety issues in your own home?

My oldest, Jacob, is 13 and he wants to do things like mow the yard and go hunting. When I look back on my own experience, having seen so many injuries, I’m determined not to let that happen in my home. Sure, I’ll let him mow the yard… but he’s going to wear eye protection, ear plugs and closed-toe shoes. We actually had safety meetings about the lawn mower. If something’s wrong, shut it off. Look behind you before you back up. Don’t mow the yard when there are other people around. Let Mom know before you start mowing. We have those conversations, and what’s interesting is that we’ve talked about this for two or three years, and now he does all that stuff without being asked. In fact, it’s hilarious because this 13-year-old kid went on Amazon and bought his own $14 eye protection and had it shipped to the house.

So that’s a safety leadership win, and it goes back to that belief. We’re smarter than machines. We can teach people to be safe, when they understand what’s at risk.

What advice would you give to business owners to keep their employees injury-free?

Again, management has to be committed. You can make all the policies and buy all the equipment you want, but if your employees don’t believe that you’re serious and you don’t have that passion, it’s going to be difficult. They’re not going to follow those rules or wear that equipment.

You also have to be able to communicate the risk. How likely are people to get hurt? Safety is sort of conceptual: We understand that some people will get hurt. It may not be us. It’s a numbers game. You may not ever have anything go wrong at your company, but in the world around us people do get injured. Business owners need to understand and communicate how likely it is to happen in their workplace.

Think about employees who work on ladders or in wet environments every day. The likelihood of a slip, trip or fall at some point is pretty high. It’s the second most common cause of injury for MEM’s policyholders. That’s something you need to be honest about with employees so you can get their buy-in to take steps to mitigate that risk.

Some others are enforcing safety rules and investing in safety gear. No one needs you to spend a million dollars, but buy equipment here and there, and suddenly you’ll have everything you need laying around.

Metalwork employees use protective equipment

Basically, just do what you say you’re going to do. If there’s a piece of equipment that’s broken, get it fixed. If an employee has a safety concern, do something about it. When you start with those basics, and start “walking the talk,” that’s how you build a safety culture. And that’s as simple as it gets.

 


Thank you to Mark for sharing his expertise on the WorkSAFE Podcast. Check out our other episodes, and subscribe for more workplace safety stories and insight.

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