10 Keystones of a Successful Worker Safety Program

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 5,000 workers are killed on the job each year. Millions more suffer injuries, some minor, some life-altering.

A robust worker safety program can help companies prevent serious injuries and fatalities and other negative effects like increased cost, decreased work quality, and decreased productivity. In this whitepaper, we discuss several hallmarks of a successful worker safety program. Read the content below, or fill out the form for your PDF copy.

10 Keystones of a Successful Worker Safety Program

U.S. companies have made significant improvements to their worker safety programs over the past four decades. Despite this, more than 5,000 workers are killed on the job each year, and millions more are injured.

Serious work-related injuries and fatalities don’t just hurt workers and their loved ones, they also increase costs and decrease work quality and productivity overall. Implementing a worker safety program helps companies curtail these negative effects by stopping serious injuries and fatalities from happening in the first place.

In this whitepaper, we share several hallmarks of successful worker safety programs, so you can start improving your company’s health and safety efforts today.

1. Involved senior leaders

Safety starts at the very top of an organization. Not only does a company’s CEO and board of directors decide which safety initiatives to undertake, they also set the tone for how safety is perceived by everyone from supervisors to entry-level workers. This means it’s not enough for senior leaders to say safety is a priority, they must also “walk the walk” by regularly dedicating their time to safety initiatives.

“Every CEO and COO says safety is their top priority, but, sometimes you find out safety is not where they spend most of their time,” said Nick Stavropoulos, a leading worker safety advocate and former president and chief operating officer of PG&E and chief operating officer of National Grid US. “Safety can’t be a top priority if the C-suite is not investing a significant amount of time in ensuring that the organization is operating as safely as it possibly can. It's one thing to say, and it's another thing to actually make safety the core value within your organization.”

At construction firm Graycor Industrial Contractors Inc., all supervisors—from the general foreman up to the president—complete courses in task safety planning and hazard recognition, inspections and audits, behavior observation techniques, incident investigation, and workplace violence, among others. And at Mangan Inc., an engineering and auto services company, the company president, vice president, safety director, and CFO begin every week with a safety staff session.

Other ways for senior leaders to show their dedication and involvement with worker safety include taking part in on-site audits and attending worker meetings to hear concerns first-hand.

2. Engaged workers

Worker engagement is the cornerstone of a successful worker safety program. When given the opportunity, workers can be quick to volunteer their time and ideas to correct safety hazards or otherwise make work sites safer.

There are many different ways companies can encourage engagement and track participation. For example, at Milliken & Company, a performance products, textiles, and chemical company, engagement in safety initiatives is measured on a points system, with more points awarded for greater participation.

Great Lakes Construction Co. encourages involvement by rewarding workers for suggesting viable safety improvements. In one instance, the company awarded a worker with a cash prize for designing a device that reduces strain on the body while using a jackhammer.

Other companies encourage engagement with voluntary training in areas like first aid and CPR, which benefit workers outside of the job. And, every successful worker safety program makes it easy for workers to report safety issues or submit suggestions for improvement.

3. Ongoing safety training

Any company worth its salt requires immediate safety training regardless of a worker’s position or tenure, as well as retraining any time a policy is violated or there is an incident. Some take it a step farther by testing workers’ knowledge with exams that require a minimum passing score.

But, safety training is not a one-and-done process. The best worker safety programs require ongoing training and retraining at regular intervals. Gribbins Insulation, for example, holds daily job hazard analysis/safety task assignments, weekly safety meetings, monthly safety bulletins, and an annual company-wide safety meeting.

“Our training program ensures that employees know the rules, regulations and policies before they begin work, while our many continuing education programs ensure that employees constantly grow their safety knowledge,” said Trevor Atherton, Gribbins Insulation safety manager.

Other companies host safety training tied to special events, like the National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction.

4. A proactive, preventive focus

Although successful safety programs measure lagging indicators, they primarily focus their attention on leading indicators. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), leading indicators are “proactive, preventive, and predictive measures that provide information about the effective performance of health and safety activities.” Leading indicators could include the number of safety improvement projects underway, the number and frequency of audits, or the amount of time it takes to respond to a safety hazard report.

Near Miss/Good Catch initiatives are a common way companies with successful worker safety programs utilize leading indicators to measure the success of their efforts. Both Atkins Energy America and Graycor Industrial Contractors have this type of initiative, with the latter offering a reward for workers who intervene in situations with the potential to cause harm.

Chemical manufacturing company Ashland uses scorecards to measure an extensive list of leading indicators including near hits, recordable injuries, process hazard analyses and action item completion, substandard conditions, motor vehicle accidents per million hours worked, EHS audit performance, sustainability metrics, safety training completion, and safety suggestions.

5. Transparent, two-way communication

Transparency is key to a successful worker safety program. Senior leaders should regularly discuss the value of safety and the purpose of protocols with workers as well as external audiences like customers, who may not be as quick to recognize the need for new safety initiatives. Importantly, leaders should also disclose when something goes wrong, whether that’s failing to review and respond to a worker’s safety recommendation or, on the severe end, a worker being seriously injured or killed.

In successful worker safety programs, workers also have a voice and are given the tools to use it. Alberici Constructors, for example, creates a hotline number for every project that workers are encouraged to use if they identify any issues on site including unsafe acts, conditions, or other situations that put themselves or others at risk such as workplace violence, bullying, or harassment. Other companies use apps to make reporting safety issues easy and to ensure issues are documented and addressed by the proper parties.

Manufacturing company ACCO Brands even educates its workers on the dangers of not communicating safety issues to higher-ups. Its company-wide See Something, Say Something initiative involved sharing the possible human consequences of not bringing hazards to the attention of supervisors—for example, a coworker being seriously injured—and was followed by a group discussion and role playing to drive home the point.

6. Non-punitive reporting policies

Workers won’t report safety issues if they think doing so could result in some form of punishment, whether that’s an official demerit on their record or an informal change in their relationship with coworkers, manager, or supervisor. That’s why successful worker safety programs are non-punitive, meaning they do not punish workers for making or reporting mistakes.

“You want people to identify problems and share when they mess up, but that’s not going to happen unless you have a non-punitive self-reporting culture,” Stavropoulos said. “We need to move away from suspensions and terminations. This is part and parcel of the airline, nuclear, and chemical industries, and it’s starting to be recognized as important in other industries.”

Wastren Advantage Inc., an analytical laboratory facility, clearly states in its written policies that all workers can “report, without reprisal, job-related fatalities, injuries, illnesses, incidents and hazards, and make recommendations concerning appropriate ways to control those hazards.” Ashland makes clear to its workers that anyone, regardless of role or tenure, can stop any job they feel is not safe without any consequences.

7. Mental health training

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the importance of recognizing and addressing mental health issues faced by workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse in June 2020, just a few months into the pandemic. Essential workers, in particular, reported negative health effects including trouble sleeping, poor appetite or overeating, frequent headaches and stomach aches, increasing alcohol or drug use, difficulty controlling their temper, or worsening chronic health conditions.

Forward-thinking companies with successful worker safety programs recognize that mental distress can lead to fatigue, unpreparedness, miscommunication, and distraction, which could result in physical injury or even death. And so, their safety initiatives include mental health topics and training. For example, workers may be taught about the causes of stress and anxiety as well as how to recognize the signs of mental distress in themselves and others. Managers and supervisors may be instructed on how to talk with stressed and anxious workers, or they can be reminded of a company’s policy on worker accommodations.

8. A non-siloed approach

For a company’s worker safety program to be successful, safety cannot be relegated to one particular department. It’s true that safety professionals have the deepest knowledge of safety standards, worker rights, and similar topics, but they don’t know everything that happens on the front lines. Furthermore, their worldview is limited to their personal experience, and personal bias can sneak into policy.

By taking a non-siloed, inclusive approach to deciding safety policies and creating safety initiatives, companies are more likely to create a worker safety program with fewer gaps that resonates more. Design, manufacturing, and installation company Yaskawa America Inc. is a firm believer in this approach. The company has just one employee with safety in their title, but its goal is to have “100 percent of their workers become safety professionals.”

9. Regular reporting

A telltale sign of a successful worker safety program is that company leaders, supervisors, managers, and workers know how the program is performing in respect to benchmarks. Sharing regular updates on successes and failures keeps safety top-of-mind and helps everyone comprehend the amount of work that needs to be done in order to meet safety goals.

Mangan Inc. provides a good benchmark for reporting frequency. At Mangan, leaders review a summary of incidents, near misses, evacuations, and injuries, among other items, every other week. Each month, they discuss workers’ safety suggestions, and every other month, they evaluate current safety program initiatives including revisions to efforts, key performance indicators (KPIs), and issues raised by safety committees.

10. Continual improvement efforts

The absence of incidents is not an indication that a work site is safe. Companies with successful worker safety programs recognize this and continuously seek out ways to improve their programs, even when incidents do not occur.

Many companies tap their workers for assistance in this area. For example, Atkins Energy Americas sends annual safety surveys, where workers can anonymously share what they think is working and what they want to see changed in regards to safety. And, ACCO Brands has its workers review their documented job hazard analysis at least once per year to make updates. The company also randomly selects workers from all levels of the company for interviews on a variety of safety topics, with the goal of improving its overarching worker safety program.

Successful worker safety programs aren’t built overnight. For example, it can take years for workers to trust their company leaders enough to freely submit incident reports or offer suggestions for improvement, particularly if a company has a history of reprisal.

Although there are no shortcuts, it’s in every company’s best interest to build a successful worker safety program. Not only does exemplary safety performance increase profitability, improve quality, and control insurance costs, it also protects the people who do the work that makes your company tick.