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The Real Reason Employees Hate Safety Programs

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: May 4, 2022
Key Takeaways

When the safety program becomes more important than the employees, they begin to resent the program that is meant to keep them safe.

Caption: Warehouse workers Source: gorodenkoff / iStock

As I walked through the ACME Widget Factory (not its real name), I was impressed by the safety program they had in place. There were systems for reporting safety concerns, an active safety committee, and lots of safety signs and visuals reminders.

They seemed to be doing everything right. So you can imagine my surprise when I spoke to the employees and noted some resentment toward the safety program.

As the visit continued, I started to see why.

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I learned that employees were often written up or fired for breaking safety rules. They also felt backed into a corner by management due to conflicting goals. The company was very performance-driven and employees felt the pressure from stretch goals and daily, weekly, and monthly targets. They wanted to work safely, but they also wanted to be successful at their jobs.

Management's focus was on performance, not safety. When accidents occurred, it was quickly determined to be the employee's fault for not working safely.

Performance vs. Safety

We need to start from the assumption that employees want to achieve both of those goals - they want to succeed at their work and stay safe. No one wants to fail at their job and no one wants to get hurt.

Workers will make the best decision with the choices that are available to them. However, those choices are often constrained by time pressures, diminishing resources, systems complexity, and stress to achieve set goals. In those situations, safety can become just another performance goal.

On top of that, companies set targets for total recordable injury cases, lost time accidents, near misses, and property damage. This adds to the anxiety since it makes the company seem more concerned about their corporate image and the cost of insurance than about the safety of its employees.

We feel resentment when we are devalued. When profit and the company image become more important than the people who keep everything running, employees naturally feel exploited.

This is a classic lose-lose scenario. The company takes a morale hit, loses employee loyalty, and workers become disengaged. The employees don't feel appreciated or valued. This can result in high turnover rates and other signs of poor work culture.

(Learn more about The Importance of Employee Engagement and Its Impact on Your Bottom Line)

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When a safety incident occurs, the first question we should ask is "why did the employee perform a task that led to an incident?" Understanding the employee's actions is the beginning of the investigation, not the end of it. The root cause is never “they did not follow the set procedures” - there's always more to the story. To get to the real cause, we have to look into the systems, constraints, culture, and all the other contributing factors.

Again, employees make the best decision they can at any given moment. If an employee makes a decision that leads to an injury, it makes sense that others will do the same unless the systems and other factors are not addressed.

People or Profit?

When there are conflicting goals between performance and safety, it comes down to one simple question: "Which is more important? People or profit?"

I have asked this question to managers on LinkedIn and in person. And I am truly sad about how many times they say profit is more important to business than people. “Profit is to business what oxygen is to people,” they will often say.

It comes down to purpose. I have never met a person who believed that their purpose in life was to breathe air. Likewise, the purpose of a business is not to make a profit. Businesses need to be profitable to survive, but that profitability comes from running a good business.

The real purpose of any business is to supply goods and services. Profitability is what allows it to keep doing that.

There are many problems with the "profit before people" philosophy. All businesses are in a three-part symbiotic relationship between:

  1. Employees (your team)
  2. Suppliers (your business partners)
  3. Customers (the end users of your services and goods)

All of these happen to be people. If you mistreat or harm your employees, suppliers, or customers, you hurt your business. All three must be treated with the same level of appreciation and respect. After all, would you expect devalued, low morale employees to value customers?

Systems Serve People

Our safety management program is one of many systems we use to be successful. Systems enable success, but we must remember that those systems should serve people and not the other way around.

When the safety management system becomes more important than the people it was designed to protect, it has become a broken system. People come first. When people get hurt, we need to see how the systems failed, not the employee. The employee is the customer of the system.

When someone deviates from safe work practices, we need to understand why and stop blaming the person that got hurt. Incidents have more to do with systems than people - under the same conditions, others would have acted the same way as the employee involved in the incident.

Let’s value people and work with employees to constantly improve our systems. Make sure your safety management system is serving your employees and never let employees feel like the safety program is more important than they are.

Our businesses are made of people and for people. People come first - always.

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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

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Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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