Production Over Safety?

A new survey uncovers employees' disturbing perceptions about job safety. What can HR do to ensure productivity and safety are equally balanced in the workplace?

By Carol Patton

Do your employees believe that completing job tasks is more important than workplace safety?

A surprising number do, according to a new survey. Based on the responses of 2,000 workers participating in an online survey conducted earlier this year by the National Safety Council, more than one-third (36 percent) strongly or somewhat agreed that "safety takes a back seat" to completing job tasks.

Some of these workers have high-risk jobs. Consider that 68 percent hold positions in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting; 58 percent are in construction, and 45 percent work in manufacturing or an industrial facility.

"It's a bit shocking even for me as a safety professional to think that more than one-third of employees say safety takes a back seat to productivity," says John Dony, director of both the Campbell Institute and environmental, health and safety at NSC in Itasca, Ill. "This is a fundamental issue for HR folks as well as safety folks."

Employee perceptions about job safety are disturbing. According to the survey, 32 percent are afraid to report safety issues; 30 percent agreed that employees are resistant to working safely, and 39 percent agreed that management only does the minimum required by law regarding employee safety. Ironically, 71 percent stated that safety training is part of employee orientation and 68 percent believe employees are well-trained in emergency practices.

Dony says HR professionals can help elevate workplace safety by talking about the importance of safety during employee performance evaluations and praising employees for performing a job task safely.

"Safety has to be driven culturally, not just looking at a bar chart," he says, explaining that establishing a safe workplace culture involves much more than tracking the number of onsite employee accidents or injuries every year. "Just over half -- 62 percent -- say all employees are involved in solving safety issues. That's a message for safety and HR professionals to think about how they're involving folks at all levels of the organization."

Still, does higher productivity lead to more employee injuries and accidents?

Apparently so. According to a study published in the Jan. issue of the Journal of Accounting and Economics, significantly higher employee injury rates or accidents are associated with high workloads and abnormal cuts to safety-related expenditures.

The study's authors -- Judson Caskey, associate professor of accounting, Anderson School of Management at University of California, Los Angeles, and N. Bugra Ozel, assistant professor of accounting at the Jindal School Management at the University of Texas at Dallas -- compared OSHA's data -- employee injuries with earnings -- at 868 firms between 2002 and 2011. When companies barely beat analyst forecasts, employee illnesses and workplace injuries were 5 percent to 15 percent higher than those for firms that totally missed or comfortably beat forecasts. Likewise, roughly one in every 24 employees were injured in companies who squeaked by analyst forecasts, compared to about one in 27 workers in firms that either missed or surpassed analyst forecasts.

Caskey cites several key reasons behind the study's findings. He says when managers believe their company may be close to missing earnings benchmarks, they may increase employees' workloads by pressuring them to work faster or for longer hours and also cut costs by delaying employee training or equipment maintenance. To compound the problem, employees may also ignore safety protocols that slow workflows.

"Our evidence suggests that companies lose sight of safety when they're stretching themselves to hit an analyst's forecast," says Caskey, adding that HR should also inform managers that it isn't always easy to replace skilled workers who are recovering from injuries or unable to return to their job. "Ultimately, if [employees engage in unsafe practices] over and over, they're either not going to work for the company or demand higher wages to compensate for the [hazardous] environment."

Not surprisingly, the survey revealed three types of organizations that have better safety records than others: highly unionized companies, which produce lower injury rates by about 6.4 percent than companies with low unionization; states with high workers' compensation premiums, which report a nearly 5 percent lower injury rate than states with lower rates; and companies doing business with the federal government, which are required to create safe worksites.

But if your company falls outside of these three categories, consider tying employee raises, salaries, promotions or bonuses to safety goals, says William Marletta, a certified safety professional and certified safety consultant in West Islip, N.Y., who is also on the registry of The Expert Institute, which provides expert witnesses across many different industries.

"It has to be inbred [among workers] that safety is as important as getting the job done quickly," he says, adding that safety training is essential for employees at all levels. "Then make sure there's a good safety commitment from top management. They have to show an interest and know why they want a safe environment -- if they don't have healthy, non-injured workers, they won't have a profitable company."

But safety can be a tough sell because of added expenditures, ranging from safety goggles to guard rail systems. However, consider that the average cost of a work-related injury is roughly $38,000, which includes wages, productivity loss and medical expenses, according to the NSC. Marletta says HR professionals can share related industry statistics, in-house data involving workplace accidents or even employee perceptions about onsite safety with senior management to demonstrate the efficacy of a solid safety program.

Such policies must also be in writing versus informal programs that employees observe when convenient. Marletta says they need to include details such as which employees are responsible for inspections, the type of training needed, the frequency of inspections, and when and where they must be conducted.

However, not every HR professional is knowledgeable about workplace safety. In these situations, HR can contact the organization's insurance company to send a loss prevention or risk management consultant to identify onsite hazards, review safety programs and lend insight into key safety practices. Marletta says many insurance companies offer this service for free.

Otherwise, safety-savvy HR professionals can conduct safety climate surveys that gauge employee perceptions about workplace safety and then perform a safety culture assessment by reviewing all job descriptions and other documentation related to salary reviews and increases, bonus systems and performance reviews, says Sam Gualardo, president of National Safety Consultants in Salix, Pa.

"Probably nine out of 10 organizations I assess, I can't find the word safety in [the documentation] or it's a boiler-plate statement like 'You have to manage your workforce safely,' " says Gualardo, who's also on The Expert Institute registry. "It doesn't say anything specific as to what their [safety] roles and responsibilities are."

He says safety must be positioned as a significant driver of employee behavior so that it offsets the "gravitational pull" of the production side. For example, instead of adding safety goals to a long list of criteria that employees must meet to receive a bonus, he believes creating a strong policy linking safety to bonuses -- for example, the company must meet all safety goals before awarding bonuses -- would be more impactful.

Meanwhile, Gualardo isn't surprised by the NSC's survey results. Because the regulatory environment doesn't place a high emphasis on safety, he says, organizations aren't afraid of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It's sometimes cheaper to be fined for OSHA violations than comply with OSHA regulations, he says. But the main reason for safety lapses is that employees are often compensated based on their output, so the more they produce, the higher their salary.

"In many cases, safety doesn't even exist," he says. "There's no compensation at all for safety performance. It doesn't make it onto the radar screen."

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Jun 1, 2017
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