Employee attitude plays significant role in maintaining successful safety program
Aug 1, 2003 12:00 PM
EMPLOYEE safety, whether in a terminal or while driving a truck, is enhanced when employees and managers understand the role individual attitude plays. In other words, it's all in the mind.
That is the message from Dennis Deaton of QUMA Learning Systems and Monica Schiller of Behavioral Science Technology Inc. They discussed the subject at the Independent Liquid Terminals Association International Operating Conference June 9-10 in Houston, Texas.
“A major objective for all of us centers on building and maintaining high levels of awareness of our own thinking tendencies, so we can recognize when we're running unproductive mental software, and replace it with more productive trains of thoughts,” said Deaton.
As the old song says: “accentuate the positive” — and that goes for individual thoughts as well as for individual action, otherwise it's very easy to reinforce a negative pattern of behavior. In the workplace, negative thoughts and behavior can lead to accidents.
“Any incident is the result of something someone either did — or did not do,” said Schiller. “Looking at behavior gives a roadmap of where the risks are. If you can see it, you can measure it. If you can measure it, you can manage it.”
Schiller and Deaton both pointed out in their separate presentations that despite intensive training and retraining, employees continue to suffer accidents. They believe that many injuries and incidents are the result of thought processes individuals may not be aware of.
For example, Schiller said that although managers may talk a good line about safety, their behavior may be conveying another message about its importance. Some managers may be so concerned about getting a job done, that the employee assumes from the manager's anxiety that production is more important than safety, although that isn't what the manager means at all.
The end result is that the employee rushes the job, causes an injury or incident, and seems to be the problem when the manager's behavior has actually been the catalyst for the employee's action.
“The only habits that can't be changed are those an individual can't see,” said Deaton.
However, when companies realize the importance of individual behavior and the thoughts that drive it, they can begin to change the workplace attitude.
To do that, companies have to go further than investigate the physical cause of an accident. They have to take a look at the entire organization's attitude toward safety, and how it effects employee behavior. For example, did a trucking accident occur because the driver crossed into the path of another vehicle — or was it initiated when the dispatcher made too many schedule demands — because the operations director was concerned about meeting the customer's needs — because the vice-president had expressed anxiety about the company meeting its monthly goals.
Certainly none of them wanted the accident to occur, although their behavior was a major contributor. Deaton advised managers to praise and promote positive thinking. To encourage employees who learn from experience, who plan for the future, and who are reasonably happy with the present. He called for “verbal paychecks,” acknowledgments when employees are doing a good job, which reinforces positive attitudes.
Schiller said that an important message for companies is that they realize that various segments have various cultures, and that cultures vary from segment-to-segment just as they do from country-to country. “Flexibility is needed,” she said, referring to working in these environments.
She pointed out that for a safety program to work, it may take longer to get the job done. That means that supervisors must be given the authority to accomplish a project in the time that it takes to complete it safely.
One company found that many accidents were occurring just before the lunch period, she said. Upon investigation, it was learned that most of the employees brought their lunch, and used a microwave in the company cafeteria to heat it. Unfortunately, there were not enough microwaves to heat the food in the allotted lunch session, so employees wanted to be in line first when the lunch bell sounded — which meant they were rushing their jobs just prior to the noon hour.
“The employees cared about safety, but it wasn't a priority over eating lunch,” she said.
By staggering the lunch period and buying a few more microwaves, the company eliminated the before-lunch incidents. But there was a dual purpose in the action, the physical changes not only demonstrated that the company would contribute to their employee's convenience, it emphasized the importance it placed on safety. Moreover, when the accidents were eliminated, it delivered a message to managers and employees about how their behavior had contributed to the problem.
Another way of looking at safety may fly in the face of some companies' programs — bonuses for safe performance. “You shouldn't have to buy people's safety,” Schiller said. “You can celebrate it, but you don't buy it.”
She argues that monetary incentives can cause employees to hide injuries and accidents. She fears that the more bonuses involved, the more employees will be tempted to alter safety procedures.
“There has to be a plan for how you move away from incentives to get into something else,” she said. Finally, she emphasized that the entire company has to be committed to the safety program. “Get everyone to start talking about safety,” she said.
© 2013 Penton Media Inc.
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