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ASSP 2019: Bringing Humanity Back Into Safety

Sandy Smith

Are you finding that compliance-driven safety isn’t working at your facility? There might be a reason for that.

What is the perception of “the safety guy” (or gal) at your facility? Is the EHS professional perceived as a friend or foe? Are you all about compliance or is your culture based more on caring for coworkers and working together to create and maintain a safe environment?

In her presentation at ASSP 2019 in New Orleans, People not Policy: When Compliance-Driven Safety Isn’t Working,” Regina McMichael, CSP, CET, suggested that audience members “bring humanity back into safety and make it easier for everyone.”

She believes that safety professionals and the profession itself is doing a disservice to safety by embracing titles such as “safety compliance officer.”

“Do you feel an emotional bond with someone with the title ‘safety compliance officer?’ Do you want to walk up to that person and hug him? Your first thought probably is, ‘You’re that OSHA guy.’”

Many safety professionals still are perceived as rule enforcers, she noted, and are not really embraced by the workforce. “We’re trying to save your life and you don’t even like us,” she joked. “How did that happen? It’s not very fun when you’ve dedicated your career to protecting people and saving their lives and they don’t seem to care.”

Your certifications and technical knowledge and well-researched safety processes and programs don’t matter if your efforts are not respected and “if people don’t do it; don’t do what you ask,” said McMichael, who warned against being “that safety guy.” The safety guy who walked around with a camera, tape measure and note pad, looking for employees who were doing something wrong.

“What if instead of complaining that people aren’t wearing their safety glasses, you carry around three pairs of safety glasses and hand them out. ‘Hey, here’s some safety glasses,’” she suggested, adding, “When was the last time you thanked someone for wearing safety equipment?”

For the most part, she noted, employees aren’t ignoring safety rules to be malicious. “When people make mistakes, they do it because they thought it made sense at the time,” she said.

Zero tolerance safety policies often don’t solve the underlying problem, which is that if one person thinks ignoring a safety rule makes sense, others might think so too. So how to make it a teachable moment?

One company she works with sends the employee home for three days with pay and asks him or her to return to work with an improvement plan on how to work in a safe manner and follow safety procedures. It’s a radical idea, she said, but it works: “’So you’re sending me home to write a note to me, from me, telling me how to be?’” she asked, mimicking how many employees react.

“Some employees quit on the spot,” she added. Chances are, those are the employees you don’t want working at your facility anyway.

“Kindness is better,” said McMichael, if you want employees to respect you and if you want to show them that you respect them and care about their wellbeing. She suggested these steps:

  • Help fix the error
  • Acknowledge you may be part of the problem
  • Listen attentively and try not to interrupt. (McMichael, who is a lively and engaged speaker, said she often has to stand with her hand over her mouth, lifting it only to say, “And then what did you do?”)
  • Respond and provide feedback
  • Lose your baggage. “Don’t think about what that employee did last week or last year. Listen to what he’s saying now.”
June 11, 2019 @ 10:33 AM EDT Manufacturing, Construction Environment, Health & Safety

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