5 Ways to Empower Frontline Workers and Improve Industrial Safety
Tech solutions can empower your frontline workers and unlock key safety insights, but only if they are well implemented.
Keeping frontline workers engaged with safety is a tricky business.
Tech can be effective, but there has long been a digital divide in the workplace. Software solutions have been deployed on a large scale for administrative and office workers, with similar support for "deskless" workers lagging behind.
According to a recent survey, in fact, 60% of frontline workers considered the tech provided by their employers to be inadequate, and 56% supplemented that tech with their own personal devices.
This is not a trivial issue - 80% of workers worldwide don't do their job from a desk. And this obviously includes the workers who face the most severe hazards and have a lot to gain from a stronger safety program.
Clearly, there is room for improvement. And the first step is deciding where you want from the tech you implement. For frontline workers, the key areas of improvement are:
- Operations and logistics
- Onboarding and training
- Professional development
Those are broad categories, so we won't cover all of them in this article. Instead, we'll talk about some good practical starting points for empowering your frontline workers.
1. Effective Onboarding and Training
One common rationale for hesitating to equip frontline workers with more tech is that they either won't be able to use it or will resist it because it's too difficult. Office workers are just better at computer stuff - right?
Well, if there's any truth to that, it's because those office workers became good at using tech through the work they do. They had to be trained on the technology and got adept with it through repeated use. The workers on the frontline are no different.
Management sometimes perceives a purposeful and well-implemented onboarding process as an operational burden. After all, hiring managers are bringing on new employees to fill a production need, and having them intercepted for days of training can be seen as working against that goal.
Nevertheless, giving the onboarding process the time it needs can pay off in a huge way. This is especially true where technology is implemented. Proper onboarding and training ensures that every worker understands the expectations, responsibilities, and purpose of the digital solutions they will be using. This is an essential step in making them feel empowered, since no one can be invested in safety processes without understanding why they're needed or what purpose they serve.
Without the right training, moreover, workers might use the technology clumsily or half-heartedly. The result is an input that will be far less useful. No matter how slick the software is, all digital processes are governed by the same rule: garbage in, garbage out.
2. Two-Way Communication
Of all tech categories, communication has taken the biggest leap forward in recent decades. This has enabled companies to integrate, expand, and cross geographical boundaries. But in some ways, frontline workers have been left out of the loop.
Plenty of companies have well-intentioned communications practices such as intranets, document sharing, cloud-based storage, and digital newsletters, but limit access to those resources to the office staff with company email addresses. Somewhere down the line, someone prints a copy of the relevant information and tacks it up on the bulletin board. That's not wrong per se, but it's far from getting the most out of the technology.
Businesses should instead create communication channels that work for everyone. Email may be a standard, but largely because it has been convenient to people who work with a computer in their reach. It is also incredibly ineffective at workplaces that prohibit workers from even carrying their phones on the production floor. Worse yet, some organizations are still forwarding work-related items to personal emails.
Cloud-based software can do a much better job of structuring internal communications. It can produce alerts on any device, cross platforms, and work offline when connection is spotty. Unlike email, these systems can be customized to fit the specific needs of different workplaces or different categories of workers.
Quick, convenient communication is an incredible asset for any safety program. Even more so when frontline workers are given access to a system that works for them.
(Learn about Using Wearable Tech to Enhance Worksite Safety)
3. Collaborative Project Spaces
Interactive workgroups are more than the sum of their parts. Management, administration, and production have unique perspectives, all of which contribute to the organization's overall success. The problem is, they often work in isolated spheres which don’t take advantage of diverse skills and strengths.
Collaborative project spaces can bridge those gaps. These are digital spaces where employees can discuss, share feedback, submit questions, and create follow-up items for all types of issues, including those related to safety. They also make frontline workers feel connected to decisions across the organization, as well as the progress gained by those decisions.
More meaningfully, you can use their input. In terms of the safety, the insights, knowledge, and experience of your frontline workers is one of the most important resources you have.
4. Create Workflows that Assist Workers Instead of Burdening Them
Every process change needs to have a transparent purpose if it is going to be accepted. Frontline workers have to understand the "why" of what they're asked to do - and that includes any technology that becomes part of their work.
Tech solutions should be more than shiny new gadgets that spit out attractive reports with no meat or substance. But that's how they can seem to workers who are asked to just go through the motions of using them.
You should make a meaningful case for adding or changing any processes. That case should be focused on an improvement that can be communicated clearly. Workers need to know what's in it for them - not just that it will make someone else's job easier.
(Learn more in 5 Reasons You Struggle with Safety Buy-In)
5. Tap into Your Best Resource
Feedback is the raw material every good safety program is built on, and it comes from the workers on the ground. They're the ones operating the machines, monitoring processes, and keeping the production line moving. They have a direct view on the issues and the best idea of what improvements are needed.
Workers may have a wealth of valuable information and insight, but not all of them have the opportunity to share it. Providing them with the right technology is a great way to remove those barriers to getting the feedback in your hands.
With the right system in place, workers can easily submit ideas, report hazards, and propose improvements. Management gets the feedback it needs, and frontline workers know their voices have been heard.
This also creates a virtuous cycle: the more worker feedback is integrated into process improvements, the more feedback you'll get. Those tangible results encourage participation, which in turn strengthens your safety culture.
Securing safety buy-in from workers has long been a challenge, leaving many people on the frontline feeling disconnected from the safety programs and safe work practices that protect them from illness and injury. The potential for technology to empower these workers and create that missing connection is truly astounding. And yet, it's still a work in progress. Adoption is not ubiquitous and even companies that purchase digital safety solutions haven't necessarily figured out how best to use them.
It's up to each organization to sort out which solutions will yield significant results, how to make use of them, and how to overcome resistance from their workforce. Some of those decisions may be complex, but that last one is simple. The best way to ensure that workers embrace safety tech is to be clear about its benefit and to continually show proof of its effectiveness.
Written by Daniel Clark | Safety and Quality Management System Specialist
Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.