Getting workers to care about personal safety

Humans are very interesting creatures, especially when it comes to being asked to do something…even if it’s for ourselves. 

Why is what drives not only everything we do, but also our emotional reactions to everything that happens to us…We’re simply far more likely to accept a change if we understand the reason for it.” (Source: Psychology Today

We desperately need to remember these words as EHS professionals. In this post, I want to discuss a little bit about the importance of human behavior and how it affects safety outcomes.

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The days of authoritative safety 

When OSHA and the EPA began in the ‘70s, the safety and environmental components of EHS were completely separate roles. They were also more authoritative in their approach to compliance. 

What I mean by this is that workers viewed the safety person as someone who was against the worker and against production. The safety person made the work harder and focused on getting workers in trouble. 

Sensing a shift 

Over time, I have seen a shift in this perspective. Now, when I go into businesses, I explain to both employers and their employees that I won’t be the one to write someone up for infractions. That’s because discipline should really be coming from the managers—the people who really know these employees on a personal level. 

The EHS team must be seen as a resource to help employees get home safely to their families. Now, we are trending towards relationship building as the foundation for a strong EHS program. Thinking this way can help you establish trust with workers and ultimately help you convey the importance of personal safety. 

Making personal safety the focus

Employees need, or want, to know the why you’re asking them to do something. If they know the why and how it affects them on a personal level, they’re more likely to adopt safe behaviors

Show employees how safety at work affects their home life. Answer the question: what would life look like if you suffered a debilitating injury? 

Examples of safety campaigns

I’ve seen great safety campaigns designed to convey the concept mentioned above. Here are two that stand out to me: 

Hand campaign: Have employees perform routine tasks like eating, putting on clothes, or opening items to demonstrate how this kind of injury can impact their life. 

Work safe campaign: Have employees bring in pictures of their families to show everyone why they work safely and why personal safety is a priority for them. 

For years, culture has urged people to “leave work at home and leave home at the door.” But when it comes to personal safety, what you do at work very much affects your home life. This narrative has really hurt the EHS community, as we work to reframe safe work behaviors as essential for life outside of work. 

Personal safety as a collective

At a previous employer, where the incident rate was terrible, I did a total company-wide safety reset. I brought all our employees into a roundabout meeting to ask who was willing to volunteer for the next injury without knowing what the injury would be or how it would affect their life at home. 

Of course, nobody volunteered. 

But this was a great way to get everyone thinking in the same way. Since no one wanted to volunteer, it was our responsibility as a company to work together to prevent anyone from being injured next. 

As a veteran EHS guy, I can tell you that giving employees ownership over their safety is one of the easiest ways to improve performance. When employees believe that you’re in charge of keeping them safe, they start to forget the role they play. 

If you can get through to your employees to show them why safety measures are in place, you can dramatically change your EHS performance.

Jason Hathcoat

Jason is a seasoned EHS professional with more than 17 years of experience working in health and safety. He currently works as an EHS manager for a large global HVAC company.