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Overcoming negative perceptions

Do workers view you – the safety pro – in a positive way?

October 1, 2012

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“You are one of those guys, huh?”

This is what a guest at a party said to John Babcock, senior safety engineer for the International Space Station, after he told the guest what he did for a living. The partygoer worked at a local manufacturing plant and said “everyone” from the safety office at his workplace always tried shutting down the production line.

As he has done in similar situations, Babcock defended his profession. “I don’t know if I actually changed his opinion of safety professionals, but at least I had a chance to explain that all of us aren’t out to destroy production,” he said.

The perception – accurate or not – that safety professionals constantly interfere with workers’ ability to perform their jobs creates a negative and blame-based workplace culture, said David A. Hofmann, professor and area chair of organizational behavior for the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The story about how [safety procedures] came about and the drivers of why we have these policies and procedures often gets lost,” he said. “That is a very important part of an organization’s culture, and it is [a safety professional’s] job to get people refocused on why we have these processes in place.”

‘Safety cop’ vs. ‘safety professional’

“It seems that every ‘old timer’ has a story of a ‘safety cop’ walking in and shutting down a production line for minor infractions, simply to show everyone there that they have the power to enforce all the rules,” Babcock said. As a result, safety workers need to be aware at all times of how they are perceived. “Once anyone in safety gets a label of being unprofessional, it is very difficult to change [that] attitude,” he said.

One of the worst ways a safety professional can demonstrate the “safety cop” label is by being “confrontational and look for ways to criticize or stop work,” Babcock said.

Environments where people are labeled “safety cops,” create fear and reduce safety participation, said Mark Griffin, professor of organizational psychology for the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia. “Compliance might increase but hazard awareness, looking out for others and innovation can decline,” he said. Griffin said his research has found that safety professionals and programs that only emphasize compliance may have a positive effect on an organization’s violation rate, but other safety behaviors such as self-reporting, collaboration and educational program participation may decrease.

If someone wants to be known as a safety “professional,” Griffin said, he or she should provide context when issuing sanctions and ensure those processes are fair.

Babcock said safety professionals cannot simply go through checklists; they must engage with workers and gain insight into their work environment. “Anyone new to an organization should spend the first few weeks – or months, if needed – getting to know the people working there and simply ask them what their jobs are and ask them if they know of any safety issues,” Babcock said. “Allowing the workers to tell you what they see will give a new safety professional insight to the real processes that are used and not simply see people ‘acting’ when the safety guys are around.”

Griffin offered communication strategies a safety professional can use to foster this open dialog with workers:

  • Make safety a regular topic of informal conversations and formal events.
  • Ask workers’ opinions and regularly seek input.
  • Accept constructive dissent as a positive step.
  • Avoid blaming workers and focus on learning when discussing errors.
  • Ensure safety messages show support and concern for workers’ welfare.

Earning trust

The best approach to overcoming a “safety cop” label is to “calmly explain the safety aspect of your observation and point out any violations of the company’s safety plan,” Babcock said. This explanation should include how you only want them to be safe and do not intend to interfere with their work. “Unless there is an immediate threat of harm, wait until the person has finished whatever task they’re doing and then discuss safety,” he said.

Ruth L. Kaminski, assistant controller, human resources director and safety compliance for Auburn, MA-based Spear Management Group Inc., said it helps to make workers feel as though the safety professional is on their side. “I find if they realize at the onset that you are there to help them, or make them safe, and you are doing a job, they are not as defensive,” she said.

This trust needs to be earned, however. One thing Kaminski does is seek out worker input whenever a new safety policy is being developed. “Employees … really appreciate being part of the process and I sincerely appreciate their input, valid or not,” she said. “If not, I explain to them why so they understand.”

Aligning with the culture

Aligning with the organization’s culture can help safety professionals establish credibility among workers, Hofmann said.

Download information on how a safety professional can establish credibility with workers by tapping into an organization's management and culture.

Griffin co-authored a study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (Vol. 5, No. 3) that verified that the degree to which safety is a core component of an organization’s overall strategy increases the safety professional’s credibility and success at work. Not every safety professional is lucky enough to end up employed at an organization where this is the case, however. In these workplaces, safety professionals need to “think bold, think creative,” Hofmann said.

He recommended safety professionals align safety with the organization’s core values. If the company appears concerned only with financial matters, the safety professional should figure out a way to align safety with that core value. He or she could emphasize how safety incidents cost money and hurt the company’s reputation, and iterate how incidents cause unnecessary human suffering.

Then, he or she can follow up by describing the ways safety programs can save everyone and the company money and grief.

“You need to send the message, ‘I am here to help you accomplish your goal, and one way to accomplish your goal is by doing things safer.’ That will at least have a greater probability of getting their attention,” Hofmann said. If successful, the safety professional would become more integrated within the company. Once this occurs, if it is an organization where employees are committed to their employer, safety would now be one of the ways employees can achieve support and the safety staff would no longer appear to be counterproductive to the organization’s ability to achieve its goals.

Demonstrating that he or she truly cares for worker safety also can help a safety worker be perceived as a safety professional. The most important thing, Kaminski said, is that employees trust her to protect them in the best manner possible.

She said that if a worker does not follow a safety rule, she refers that person to a sign on her office door that says, “Asking me to overlook a simple safety violation would be like asking me to compromise my entire attitude toward the value of your life."

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