Most managers, including safety managers, don’t realise that when they make decisions they are metaphorically holding the knife, and the frontline workers are holding the loaf of bread.
For example, when a company implements a work procedure or a safety rule, the workers are left to implement it, even if imperfect or fraught with some other risk.
Studies* show when asked “can you get closer without cutting the person holding the loaf of bread?” the person with the knife always believes they can. Similarly, the person holding the loaf of bread always feels nervous and does not share the knife wielding person’s enthusiasm or confidence that they can get closer to their hand without cutting them.
* Peter Sandman Ph.D. Responding to Community Outrage, 1993
Sandman famously says, “don’t ask to be trusted” but provide information to prove you are trust-worthy. This is an unfamiliar perspective for most managers and companies who are usually offended by any suggestion that they are not good citizens and compliant with safety laws.
A good example of this principle is where a local community is worried that a near-by factory is suspected of exceeding some environmental parameter eg noise, electromagnetic radiation or fumes.
The typical business reaction is to issue a strong statement something like; “we have put in place strong controls and guarantee that the safety limits will not be exceeded at any time”. In my experience, most managers are sincere in their intent, but do not apply the level of diligence, and possibly resourcing or monitor, required to support their guarantee.
Given this situation, it should not be surprising that local communities, and often workers, are very cynical about company safety assurances.
So, that should companies do when faced with a challenge from their own workers, or local community, about a safety issue?
If a factory is genuinely committed to compliance with some environmental parameter then don’t ask people to trust you, but display the read-out in a prominent position where all stakeholders can see it.
Then your workers and community will trust you.
What is the lesson from this? Show some empathy for the safety and health concerns of others, especially when they are the ones exposed to the consequences of your standards and decisions.
Next month we look at safety communication and provide some tips on how to get your safety message across. Gary Rowe, CEO