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What It Really Means to Empower Workers

By Daniel Clark
Published: July 20, 2022
Key Takeaways

Worker empowerment can be an effective safety asset or an empty buzzword. Here's how to tell the difference.

Caption: Two Factory Workers in Protective Gear Discussing Work Processes Source: SeventyFour / iStock

Safety is everyone's responsibility.

Right?

Sure, it makes a great slogan, but it can ring a bit hollow. After all, employees and management don't just have a generic duty to workplace safety. There are specific roles with defined responsibilities. Some positions have more authority than others, which comes with a heightened level of accountability.

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So yes, safety is everyone's responsibility in the sense that we all contribute to a safe workplace. But there's more to it than that.

Because safety isn't a level playing field, building a safe workplace can't simply be a matter of finding out who was directly involved in an incident and reprimanding them. That kind of finger-pointing is more likely to undermine a safety culture than support it. It also fails to take into account the responsibility employers, managers, and supervisors have for ensuring a safe working environment.

So, what's the alternative?

Enforcement-Based Safety

For decades, the prevailaing approach has been based on enforcement. Employers and others in positions of authority required workers to carry out their jobs safely by adhering to detailed practices and policies. Essentially, they put rigorous constraints on workers' activities and penalized any deviance from those constraints.

This enforcement approach is largely reactive and driven by a desire for better indicators of safety, such as reduced incident rates and fewer lost time injuries. It is also ineffective and counterproductive, because concentrating your efforts on safety outcomes doesn't address the issues that contribute to those outcomes.

In other words, lagging indicators of safety aren't the root of the problem. They're evidence that something has gone wrong somewhere upstream.

Employers and safety professionals still need to be concerned with metrics like lost time injuries. But they should also be looking past those numbers, at the types of activities that contribute to a safe workplace.

(Find out How Leading Indicators Can Make Your Workplace Safer)

Behavior-Based Safety

There has long been an effort to discover the recipe for a strong safety culture. But a safety culture isn't really something you can codify. It's more like an emergent property of well-run, meaningful, and practical safety activities. And it's by focusing our efforts on those activities that you can get the most bang for your safety buck.

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Behavior-based safety isn't new. We can trace it all the way back to Herbert Heinrich’s pioneering work in the 1930s. And although it's been widely promoted, it hasn't always been given its due.

The behavior-based approach tends to linger on the periphery of safety management as a risk control modality. In practice, however, many manufacturers and other organizations still default to detailed regulation. While some of the rhetoric around these safety programs might sound progressive, the approach is still a top-down one that betrays an adherence to enforcement.

Unfortunately, it can be challenging to think outside that paradigm. Bottom-up solutions are conceptually difficult in a way, and I think that has impeded their widespread adoption. That's why it's still quite common to see an "X Days Since Last Injury" placard on jobsites, even though we know this kind of thing only reduces reporting, not injuries.

That doesn't workers. In fact, it does the opposite.

(Learn more in Your Incentives Are Compromising Safety Culture)

Building Empowerment

Empowerment is a favorite buzzword in safety circles. And although the concept is occasionally abused, empowering workers is the best way to gain their participation from the bottom up and improve safety performance as a result.

Empowerment, however, is elusive, difficult to define, and even harder to instill in a workforce.

Too often, it takes the form of pandering. Or as David Norfolk puts it, “expecting your employees to make the same decisions you would, on pain of dismissal, without giving you the trouble of managing them.”

A behavior-based approach implies that most incidents result from unsafe acts and behaviors. The trouble is, it's easy to move from that starting point right back to the blame game when things start going wrong.

A better approach is to ensure that incident investigations should always seek to find facts, not fault. The point is to identify the cause of the event, not assign blame for it. Furthermore, that philosophy should be codified in the organization's safety policies and acknowledged by management.

Creating Safety Champions

Workers who have been empowered often emerge as safety champions. Those champions have a unique kind of influence that management simply can't tap into, since they're seen as peers rather than authority figures.

Champions model safe behaviors, observe their coworkers at the ground level, and help them make adjustments as needed. Moreover, they see the work as it's actually done, not the sanitized performance that managers and safety officers often witness when doing rounds on the floor.

Champions can emerge spontaneously simply by virtue of being individuals with the right experience, knowledge, and interest. But participation can also be systematically encouraged.

Note that encouraging this participation does not mean forcing it. Giving senior employees the title of safety champion and piling additional responsibilities on their shoulders is another example of a top-down approach that should be avoided.

it might feel like a slow process at first. Ask for volunteers to join a safety committee and you'll be met with stark silence until a few begrudgingly raise their hands. Some, however, will eventually come to appreciate the activities of the committee when they see it in action and understand its true purpose.

This only succeeds, however, if the safety committee is run well. Many still perceive these committees as well-meaning but ultimately impotent. A drain on time and resources at best, or another punitive disciplinary tool at worst. To avoid reinforcing these attitudes, the group needs a clear mandate and leadership. It needs to be empowered to effect actual, meaningful change. And most improtantly, it needs to be for the workers.

One of the committee's functions should be to collect and act on worker feedback. This provides a trusted channel for workers to confidently give their input and recommendations. From there, changes should be made without repercussion, and any recommendation that isn't implemented should be explained.

The more this feedback loop functions and becomes visible, the more workers will be encouraged to participate in it. The continued feedback they willingly provide is the raw material for a proactive, bottom-up safety program.

Aside from its structured activities, this may be the most important function of the committee overall. It builds trust, engagement, and allows workers to see their input translated into results.

In other words, it empowers them.

Safety from the Bottom Up

The fact is, committees can achieve a great deal when it comes to safety. As a consultant, I usually advise their formation even when it isn't mandatory. Having a full-time safety rep on staff - whether a hard-nosed safety cop or a savvy safety manager - simply can't match the influence and insights of a diverse group of workers who have their hands in the processes and boots on the ground.

These folks provide the best possible, real-time view into the issues, controls, and contributing factors that influence the safety culture and performance of the organization.

And all you have to do to tap into that power is make sure you're empowering them to do their part to keep the workplace safe.

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Written by Daniel Clark

Profile Picture of Daniel Clark

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.

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