For a long time, the concept of workplace and occupational safety wasn't something the average business worried about. Most business owners and operators believed that it was a concern limited to some specific high-danger jobs, and were willing to settle for meeting the OSHA standards applied to their industry.
But there was a cost associated with doing that, and it manifested itself in inflated workers' compensation claims and inflated insurance rates. Even then, many businesses just accepted that as the cost of doing business. And unless some major accident occurred, there wasn't any reason to revisit that decision.
Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted into a global crisis that has had massive repercussions, affecting the way every business has to operate. And one of those effects is a new mandate to look after employees' health and take steps to keep workplaces infection-free. But doing so within an organization that's never preached or prioritized safety isn't an easy feat.
To make it possible and to reorient businesses to handle their new workplace safety responsibilities requires building a positive workplace health and safety culture from the ground up. And here's a step-by-step road map to do just that.
Step one: Create an accountability structure
The first step in any effort to create a workplace health and safety culture is to decide who's responsible for monitoring the day-to-day behavior of all employees. In some instances, this is best accomplished by designating a point person for the task within each organizational group. In smaller organizations, having a single health and safety manager may suffice.
The purpose of doing this is to make clear to workers at all levels that the business's health and safety priorities are serious business goals that will be actively tracked, measured, and, if necessary, enforced. This is even more important in the age of COVID-19, because a single non-compliant employee can wreak havoc on the whole business. There can be no room left for pleas of ignorance or a belief that the workplace's safety rules are merely best practices.
Step two: Choose success metrics
Before designing a safety policy for the business, it's first necessary to define the goals the policy should meet and choose metrics to measure its effectiveness. This is the reason why construction sites often count the days between worksite accidents. But for an office setting, different metrics might be a better fit.
For example, keeping track of the aggregated cost of the business's health and safety measures is a good first step. Then, measuring the total number of productive days worked by employees using the formula number of days worked / total business days X 100 provides a useful measure of any output lost to illness or injury. If the business value of that lost output is less expensive than the measures in place – the system's not working. If not, the business is on the right track.
Of course, that's not all there is to it. Other factors like workers' compensation incident rates and insurance costs must play a role in gauging success. And for best results, it's critical to remember that the more factors the business measures, the more accurate a picture will emerge. It's advisable to take as much time as needed to design an appropriate data collection and examination system.
Step three: Create clear safety policies
With the right accountability structure and success metrics in place, the next step is to create comprehensive health and safety policies for them to enforce. To be clear – these should be far more strict and far reaching than what's contained in a standard OSHA-compliant policy statement. At the very least, it should contain whatever state-specific mandatory measures apply to the business's operating location.
A comprehensive policy should strive to spell out things such as what's expected of employees, what consequences come with noncompliance and phased mitigation steps that would come into effect when necessary. But it shouldn't stop there. It should also establish a process for employees to report concerns and a process for how those concerns are to be dealt with. Doing so accounts for unforeseen problems and encourages the kind of communication that's necessary to establish a culture of safety in the organization.
Step four: Make safety training mandatory
In most cases, businesses already have a legal obligation to provide some form of safety training to their employees. In multiple states, they now have to add COVID-19 specific training to their programs. But even where such measures aren't required, any business trying to create a culture of health and safety should make training a centerpiece of their efforts.
But not all safety training programs are created equal. It's important to design a program that prioritizes engagement and promotes an ongoing conversation among employees. Then, follow-up refresher training efforts should avoid rote repetition of the rules and regulations in favor of participatory exercises that reinforce key concepts on an as-needed basis.
Step five: Design a rewards system
As it's often said, deterrence and inducement go hand in hand. For that reason, businesses should reward employees for exemplary health and safety achievements instead of simply punishing them for failure. And the good news is that there are volumes of research into what types of incentive programs work and which don't.
The best way to proceed is to ask the employees that will be subject to the program for motivational ideas. They'll know what kinds of inducements will push them to do their best, and there's no better way to build a successful rewards program than that. The bottom line is, as long as the rewards are cost-effective and reasonable, give the workers what they want.
Step six: Formalize recognition
Believe it or not, the possibility of gaining a reward isn't going to motivate every employee. Some just like to be noticed when they do good work. For them, a companywide recognition program makes an excellent companion to a rewards program. It can consist of something as simple as a monthly shout-out from managers or executive leadership for a job well done. Or, the business can organize a formal award that may be given to an employee who exemplifies the business's desired health and safety culture.
What's more important, however, is that offering recognition to top safety performers provides a very visible signal to everyone involved that the company's committed to its health and safety policy. It elevates those goals to be on par with other business priorities, like achieving sales milestones or landing a new client. And that message speaks volumes about what matters to the business.
Staying safe together
Once all of the needed policies, procedures, and organizational structures are in place, all that's left to do is execute on the agreed-upon policy and observe the results. Over time, the seriousness with which the business takes the health and safety of its employees will permeate the organization and lead to the creation of the desired health and safety culture.
New employees will learn from existing employees how to maintain the highest standards of excellence, and managers will learn to recognize and reward their success. And most importantly, everyone involved will benefit from the effort. And in a world that has just provided tangible proof that workplace health and safety is critical to every business's success – that's a goal that every business should aspire to.