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Who Is Responsible for Safety Morale? Part 1 – Executives: Safety Starts at the Top

It is not unusual for me to hear from people throughout an organization from the top executive to the functional level say that safety morale needs improvement. What do they mean?

Let’s begin by understanding what morale is.  According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, morale is “the feelings of enthusiasm and loyalty that a person or group has about a task or job; a sense of common purpose with respect to a group; the level of individual psychological well-being based on such factors as a sense of purpose and confidence in the future.”

So who is responsible for morale?  Ask people at different levels in the organization and you’ll get different answers – it depends upon perspective. So what is the right answer?

Safety Morale is Everyone’s Responsibility

I want to challenge you that YOU can improve safety morale and that it is YOUR responsibility no matter where you are in the organizational chart.  In more than 24 years of consulting to organizations I have heard all the phrases that describe who is responsible for safety.  Using some of those phrases to frame the question, maybe we can see how powerful your personal influence can be in improving safety morale. Over the next few weeks, we will explore responsibility for safety morale throughout the organization.  Let’s start at the top.

Safety Morale Starts at the Top

If you are an executive your role is to continually scan the organization for safety morale – to understand what the workforce’s enthusiasm for safety is and how loyal they are to the safety process.  You play the role of visionary, directing the organization towards the goal that has been set for safety.  Is there continuity between the organization’s safety performance and the goal?  If not, you may have a morale problem where people do not have a sense of well-being or confidence that their safety concerns will be heard and addressed and that resources, including time, will be provided to help them meet the expectations of the company while they perform their jobs safely.  You set the tone for the value of safety in the organization.

Morale is a state of mind. It is steadfastness and courage and hope. It is confidence and zeal and loyalty. It is elan, ésprit de corps, and determination.

-George C. Marshall

Executives who are involved in safety to the point of conducting formal walk-throughs or observations in the field can greatly increase the perception of the entire company.  When coaching executives I ask, “How much time do you spend walking-through workplaces as a safety observer?  Do you attend the mandatory safety training your to which your organization is committed?”

During one of my Hazard Recognition and Control Workshops an employee said, “Oh yeah, our supervisor talks big about taking time for safety, but then turns around and assigns unreal deadlines to complete the work!”  The chief operations officer (COO), who was sitting on the front row, looked up at me and asked, “Can I handle this, Carl?”  You bet…

This COO stood up and thanked the individual for speaking up and said, “This is why I take the time to attend all training, and my staff are required to do so as well.”  He reassured the entire class that as an executive he expected each and every employee to not only commit to the vision of a safe workplace but stand up for the vision.  He said that without offering excuses for a supervisor who might have miscommunicated the vision for safety, he would appreciate it if everyone in the room would commit to the message and work with their supervisors to prevent every injury.  He also assured them that nobody would be fired for taking time to work safe and that it was an expectation placed on everyone.

I watched during the break as this COO was approached by the worker who spoke up.  The worker stuck out his hand and although I could not hear the conversation it was obvious that both men found that they shared a common vision for safety.  Safety morale was improved at that point!

So, What is An Executive to Do?

How does an executive recognize low safety morale?  My observation is that if morale is generally low in the organization safety morale is low.  You’ll experience increased levels of absenteeism, illness, and injury.  Each of these is costly to the organization in terms of profits and productivity – primarily people and their capacity to work safely.

If you detect a lack of commitment to safety in the organization, a general sense from employees that the organization does not care about individual safety, or the lack of safety as a common goal, you probably have a safety morale problem.  What can you do?

To improve safety morale or keep it at an acceptable level, executives must be clear in their communications about expectations for safety at the worksite.  They must be observed as being a committed leader and not just giving lip service.  However, as an executive you have to realize that not everyone is going to believe you are committed, and there are people who are just not going to trust you because of your placement on the organizational chart.

Consider these three things:

  • Ensure that the value of safety is communicated from you to the next level of the organization and ask the leaders who report to you to do the same – frequently.
  • Take time to listen to the safety concerns of individual employees by spending time in the field, on the shop floor, or at the job site – regularly.
  • Meet with safety committee leaders or small groups of employees to ask questions about safety morale – take a ‘pulse’ to see what they think can help employees to be more enthusiastic and committed to the organization’s safety goal – often.

This is a multiple part blog.  Next week we will explore middle-management’s responsibility for safety morale in the workplace.  In the meantime I hope you will do your best to improve safety morale by creating a safe workplace, so that nobody gets hurt.

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For those of you that have a Twitter account, you can follow me on Twitter at: @cpotter100

I am really excited about the response to my latest book: Conquest for Safety: Leadership Required and encourage you to get a copy.  Read it and apply it to improve your workplace safety culture.  Get your copy at: www.safetybooks.com

If you can buy into the idea of creating Elite Safety Teams in your organization, call my office at 800.259.6209 to schedule a conference call to discuss how your organization can improve safety morale.

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