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Human behavior

How does trust impact safety behaviors?

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Responding is Chuck Pettinger, process change leader, Predictive Solutions, Pittsburgh.

“You can’t trust Melanie, but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie.”

Trust plays a crucial role in our everyday lives. I trust that my alarm (or dog) will wake me. I trust that my son’s teacher is providing a quality education. I trust that my employer operates a safe work environment. Trust is the firm belief in the reliability or strength of someone or something.

But what factors play a role in building and keeping trust? Perhaps a more revealing question would be, what degrades or erodes trust when it comes to safety in the workplace?

Each employee comes to the job with a varying level of trust derived from past life experiences, positive and negative interactions, and interpretations of others. In the workplace, employees make trust assessments based on the perceived trustworthiness of a person (co-worker/leader) or of the organization (department/BU/company). While many factors influence trust, past safety research shows us that the success of workplace initiatives can be affected by whether employees trust in people’s intentions or in their actions.

A NIOSH-sponsored research grant in which I participated looked at how trust influences the success of safety initiatives. When it came to the success of new initiatives, we looked at employees’ level of trust in their leadership team and in their co-workers. Specifically, the two aspects of trust we focused on were trust in people’s intentions or trust in their behaviors. As it turned out, the employees who participated more in new safety initiatives had more trust in the behaviors of their leadership team, whereas trust in their co-workers’ intentions was more predictive of participation.

Many safety professionals face resistance when introducing new safety initiatives that are often seen as “flavor-of-the-week” programs. The above-mentioned research points to trust as a critical aspect of turning a potential “flavor-of-the-week” safety program into a continuous improvement process. When it comes to success, we need to trust that our co-workers are engaged for the right reasons (intentions), as opposed to merely participating (behaviors). With our leaders, on the other hand, employees need to witness active participation (behavior), which they then perceive as a demonstration of commitment. Employees may gain more trust in their safety initiatives when their leaders “walk the talk” by active engagement rather than by simply issuing paper statements asserting their support of the new initiative.

Trust can also influence our safety-related conversations. For instance, if an employee trusts a co-worker’s intentions of looking out for others, then a safety conversation would go much better than if there was a lack of trust. Or, when a supervisor consistently acts in response to safety requests, that leader develops a reputation of trustworthiness, which would influence future conversations about safety concerns.

Five key ideas for maintaining or increasing trust are:

  1. “Walk the talk”: Consistency in values that correspond with actions develops a trustworthy reputation.
  2. Share information: Invest time in meaningful conversations, not quick communications.
  3. Follow up: A timely response to employee safety requests demonstrates commitment.
  4. Focus on achievements: Find safety activities to celebrate, as opposed to focusing on failures.
  5. Maintain integrity: Do not participate in gossip or share opinions that are counterproductive to the success of the safety initiative.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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