Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Protecting a changing workforce: Four things organizations are telling us

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2013, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to world-class safety performance.

Recently, I met with the vice president of safety at a food processor that employs 14,000 people across 45 facilities. She told me that 23 percent of the company’s employees are “Generation Y” (people born between 1980 and 2000), while an additional 26 percent will be retiring over the next five years. In response, this organization is overhauling its approach to safety. As the leader put it, “We need to recognize both that our aging employees are at significantly higher risk of injury, as well as that the people we are hiring are inexperienced and relatively naive about the importance of safety.”

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Many leaders we work with today are faced with similar challenges in a rapidly changing workforce. Unlike their parents, today’s workers may have multiple careers in their working life. They are increasingly older and more diverse. So how are safety leaders thinking about this issue? While by no means exhaustive, here are four things safety leaders are telling us:

  1. Safety systems are more important than ever. Leaders recognize that behavior-based safety and other frontline systems are often the first and main point of contact employees have with safety. Keeping them well-run and relevant is essential to addressing exposures as they change. Leaders are increasingly benchmarking system functioning against other organizations and checking performance against known success factors such as leadership, communication plans, union relationships and steering committee rotation.
  2. We need “kinder, gentler” supervisors. At the top of many leaders’ wish lists are supervisors who can more adeptly manage the new human landscape. Today, employee populations are often weighted heavily at two different ends (the very new and the very experienced). Many workers now come from different industries and cultures. Knowledge gaps are common due to layoffs and early retirements, and so on. These and other reasons are why supervisory development is increasingly moving away from traditional training and focusing on developing leadership skills in the context of the supervisor’s day-to-day role.
  3. We want to move from compliance to commitment. Just as a rigid, top-down leadership style is inconsistent with the needs of today’s workforce, a rules-based approach to safety performance is ill-suited to the leaner organizations they work in. Rules are static and usually based on our best understanding of likely exposure to risk. But live workplaces change, events intersect, things happen. Many leaders see an opportunity to move toward a “culture of commitment”: A workplace that supports and encourages engagement with the organization’s values and creates an environment in which discretionary effort flourishes. Practically speaking, this means equipping employees to recognize and respond to exposure as it changes. This approach both leverages the experience and insight of older employees and appeals to younger workers’ value for autonomy and sense of purpose.
  4. Safety is no longer just a workplace issue. Many leaders now see that safety is not an “either/or” proposition. It’s a “both/and.” At a time when organizations are increasingly precise in their safety interventions (for example, targeting exposures by severity potential), they also are broadening their view to exposures “outside the gates.” They see that injuries from things such as distracted driving and home accidents far exceed workplace accidents and want to help. Doing so, they also are connecting with an employee base that increasingly values work that supports a quality home life.

Looking ahead

Today’s changing workforce presents new variables that have the potential to undermine safety performance if not properly understood. As many leaders are discovering, however, with these challenges come great opportunities. Engaging the new workforce in meeting these challenges not only helps keep them safe, it can potentially help leaders advance organizational safety performance itself.

Patrick McCorry is vice president at global safety consulting firm BST. McCorry brings more than 15 years of experience in the consulting, leadership development, training, information technology and e-commerce industries to his work helping senior leaders address organizational safety challenges.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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