Improved Safety Performance Through better Communication & Participation

This article has been submitted by Andy Loader, Board member of the New Zealand Safety Council.


Studies have found that over 90% of safety professionals believe that lack of employee engagement is the biggest barrier to improving safety performance. So if safety professionals wish to improve safety performance within an organisation, they need to find a way to overcome this lack of engagement and encourage participation from all levels in their safety programs.

In high risk and in high staff turnover industries with multiple operating jobsites, increasing employee engagement can present its challenges.

The Harvard Business Review, in 2015, published an article titled: “What Great Managers Do to Engage Employees” by James Harter and Amy Adkins which provided some good tips for increasing employee engagement. They stated in that article that they believed that communication is crucial to increasing worker engagement levels.

They also stated, based on a recent Gallup report, that consistent communication (whether it occurs in person, over the phone, or electronically) is one of the main drivers to higher engagement.

In that Gallup report, “State of the American Manager”, it provided an in-depth look at what characterizes great managers and examined the crucial links between talent, engagement, and vital business outcomes such as profitability and productivity. The research showed that managers account for as much as 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.

For example, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.”

This shows that one of the best ways to increase the levels of worker participation is for Managers/Safety Leaders to communicate regularly with their employees.

They also claimed based on the Gallup report, that engagement is highest among employees who have some form (face-to-face, phone, or digital) of daily communication with their managers.

Engaged employees report that their managers return calls or messages within 24 hours.

That Gallup study revealed that employees who feel as though their manager saw them as people rather than just as employees were more likely to be engaged.

So the key driver for engagement amongst employees is to establish a means of 2-way communication and to communicate regularly. The concept seems simple enough; yet, establishing good lines of communication is often easier said than done.

Great managers have the talent to motivate employees and build genuine relationships with them. The best managers understand that each person they manage is different. Each person has different successes and challenges both at and away from work. Knowing their employees as people first, these managers accommodate their employees’ uniqueness while managing toward high performance.

One of the main reasons companies struggle with communication can be because their safety programs are mostly paper based processes.  Paper processes tend to limit the ability to have 2-way communication.

Onsite employees fill out forms and indicate the need for corrective actions, which is essentially a way of communicating hazardous conditions. The forms eventually make their way to the Safety Manager but with paper based processes there’s often no efficient way for them to communicate back to the onsite worker.

Paper processes often only allow for 1-way communication and since communication plays such a vital role in increasing engagement, it’s clear why Safety Managers are struggling to achieve higher levels of engagement.

Even when you hold regular toolbox talks or safety meetings, if you’re using paper based processes only, you’re still lacking a means of immediate and consistent 2-way communication. The reality is that most employees do not read paper based messages; they tend to rely on the safety meetings/toolbox talks to get updates of procedures etc.

To achieve improvements in engagement and participation, holding regular safety meetings/toolbox talks isn’t enough. You need to also have constant and regular two way communication, especially in response to safety activities being performed if you want the workers to be engaged in them.

The easiest way to establish 2-way communication with workers across all active jobsites is to use the modern technology. Digital or phone technology are both effective means of daily communication with regards to increasing worker participation.

By moving away from the paper based systems and embracing the latest user-friendly mobile support systems you gain the ability to create 2-way communication.

There are still many people that are not very literate in the use of computers but with the advent of smart phone technology most are now able to use this means of communication. Simple but powerful mobile technology with smart phones allows your workers to perform routine safety activities with their mobile devices and then submit them in real-time.

It also allows Safety Managers to sign off on these reports immediately and send back confirmation to the worker. This in itself is a form of 2-way communication as it allows onsite workers to see that their activities have been received and signed off by upper management.

Being able to have corrective actions immediately assigned for actions to be taken and closed out, allows onsite workers to see how their routine reports are being acted on for their safety in real time and encourages them to be more engaged in the process.

Getting employees to engage in the safety program can be challenging, especially when you are managing safety across multiple jobsites. However, when you can move away from paper based processes and embrace technology, you facilitate a means of 2-way communication and break down the barriers to worker participation.

The key is finding mobile technology that is easy to use and built to be used by the entire organization – not just the safety department. If the mobile technology is simple and easy-to-use for all workers, then you can establish a means of communicating with every level of your workforce and therefore improve worker engagement in safety.

There is a belief that still exists in many workplaces that productivity is contrary to good health and safety practice.

It must be argued that in fact, neither safety nor productivity can work well without the other – and it is a belief that has got Health and Safety policy to where it’s at today. Nonetheless, 1 in 3 workers still believe their employer values productivity more than safety.

The vision of safe production should be classed as a philosophy where everyone recognizes the company must survive and prosper, but that it must do so safely and this goal is a realistic one that leads to all-round better economic performance:

“Without a doubt, people will at times test the company’s resolve, but if the safe production philosophy is consistently followed, a safety partnership will develop to deliver safety excellence. In turn, this will lead to more effective safety leadership, employee engagement (engaged employees are 5 times less likely to experience an injury), and other benefits.”

The question of health and safety vs. productivity will always exist. What’s different about health and safety is that it protects the very means by which a company can be productive in the first place – its people. So how can you go about explaining the connection?

Establishing high levels of employee engagement and a strong safety culture cannot be achieved overnight, it involves updating “the way we do things around here.”  However, given that the evidence shows that health and safety best practice and improving the communication between workers & management can improve productivity, your next step should be planning for that change which may include:

  • Continuous organizational learning programs
  • New health and safety management software
  • Improving the communication between workers and management
  • Setting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to track progress

The answer to the health and safety vs. productivity argument is a complex one where we must tolerate some level of risk but with adequate controls in place to manage that risk.

It can probably be well summed up as follows:

“Workplace safety culture, employee morale and productivity are all part of the same chain – break one and they all go”.

Organizations must manage all of these together if they don’t want to be the safest company ever to go bankrupt or become known as a profitable company that has a record of injuring employees.