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5 Reasons You Struggle with Safety Buy-In (And What to Do About It)

By Kevin Burns
Published: January 31, 2019
Key Takeaways

If you're struggling with safety buy-in, chances are you're not making safety interesting enough.

Buying into something means thinking that it has value and is worth doing. And that gets to the core of the problem: safety professionals struggle to get employee buy-in for safety because they aren't positioning safety as worthwhile.

Instead of a worthwhile endeavor, what are employees presented with? Checks, balances, paperwork, rules, processes, meetings, penalties, fault, and impending doom. So, employees resist it. Little wonder, really. Instead of feeling empowered by the safety program, employees feel controlled by it.

Here are five reasons you’re not getting the buy-in your safety program needs and some advice on how to fix it.


1. You’re Making Safety Boring

I know, it feels like it's out of your hands. You have forms, paperwork, inspections, rules, procedures, and incidents to talk about. But chances are you're lumping the content and the presenter into one when they're clearly not. A great presenter can make any subject less boring. So, get good at presenting. Make it fun. Make it interesting.

Here’s your takeaway idea: buy a book on presentation skills. Don't buy a book on using PowerPoint. (Please. Stop.) Read it from cover to cover. Mark the pages. Dog-ear the corners. Immerse yourself in it. Then buy another one and repeat the whole process over again.

Get good at presenting. Your PowerPoint can't make you interesting and it sure can't make the safety initiative you're presenting interesting.

2. You’re Talking at Them

Recall the empty faces of employees who couldn’t wait to leave the last safety meeting. That's because you’re talking at them, not with them.

It's what telemarketers do: while you wait for an opportunity to get off the phone, telemarketers keep talking at you. They're not having a conversation. You do the same thing in your safety meetings.

Get good at having one-on-one conversations about safety. Help employees see how safety helps them, not you. Focus on making safety about employees and less about following rules (lean more in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture).

Here’s a takeaway idea: help others succeed. It’s a simple leadership philosophy. Talk with your people as often as you can, be helpful to others, build trust and rapport. People can buy-in to that.

3. You’re Waiting for Senior Management to Go First

It's not unusual for safety managers to blame upper management for poor buy-in to the safety program. Too many safety professionals claim that the safety culture cannot improve until upper management buys-in. And that’s just wrong. Oh sure, it’s easier if management buys-in, but it is certainly not a requirement.

Furthermore, if senior management doesn't buy-in today, does that mean you are unable to help your people stay safe? Of course not. You have to go to work in spite of the perceived barriers to your success (for advice on getting buy-in from above, see Get Your CEO to Support Safety with the Curve Approach).


Your takeaway idea: stop making excuses and waiting for someone else to do something. Instead, do something that helps a front-line employee be better and safer at their job. Do it one employee at a time if you have to, but don’t make excuses for not being better.

4. Balance Your Position Between Manager and Leader

The difference between a manager and a leader is that one manages and one leads. I realize that this is an oversimplification, but it's true.

You’re supposed to be leading too, not simply managing. Managing means maintaining the status quo. Leading means moving on to something better. If you’re not improving the safety program’s results, then, by default, you’re managing them. That means there's little forward momentum. You have to build momentum. Safety becomes more exciting and easier to buy-in to when it looks like it’s moving forward. People will get behind something with momentum (see 3 Ways to Become a Safety Leader to learn more).

Here’s your takeaway: jot down five things you want to improve about the safety program. Not five results you’d like to have, but five things you can take action on. Then start getting them done. Give the perception that there’s momentum and ask employees to help you move your list forward, one item at a time.

5. Certification Doesn’t Make You a Leader

You don’t need to be certified in safety before you can buy-in to safety. Anyone who embraces safety as one of their personal values can buy-in to safety, from front-line employees to CEOs.

You may need to have certification in order to manage the safety program, but to buy-in to safety as one of your personal values needs no schooling, courses, or certification. Let’s be clear about that. Employees are inspired by the person you are, not your designation and not your certification. Safety management is supposed to be selfless. Safety professionals are supposed to care about people, not try to impress them by the number of courses they take.

Here’s your final takeaway: don't use your certification as a hammer. People are impressed by people who care about them. They are not impressed by people who hold their titles, positions, and certifications over them. Be a caring person and let your schooling help you make better decisions for others.


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Written by Kevin Burns

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Kevin Burns is a management consultant, safety speaker and author of "The Perfect Safety Meeting" and "Running With Scissors - 10 Reasons To Invest in Safety In Slow Times."
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