Safety Culture and Just-in-Time Recognition

October 22, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

Employee safety is a bellwether metric in today’s workplaces. A good safety record is not only a good indicator of the relative health and wellbeing of your employees, it is an indicator of the health of your culture.

  • Safety is a marker of productivity, with less downtime or missed work due to accidents.
  • Safety is a marker of teamwork, because discord on teams increases the opportunity for poor communication and mistakes.
  • Safety is a marker of true commitment, because employees are part of the culture that underlies the rules—which results in good compliance even when no one is watching.

Safety is also a marker of employee engagement.  That’s because good safety reflects and encourages a positive “social exchange” in your company . Social exchange is your employees’ trust in and relationship with the company. According to Tim Hoover from safety consultant BST, positive social exchange establishes a good relationship between a company and its employees, and fosters a strong sense of reciprocity:

“In this environment employees tend to go above and beyond their job description because they feel it is the right thing to do for a peer, leadership or the organization. This willingness to follow a procedure, even when no one is watching or to step up and take on leadership in the moment is a sign of a very high functioning organization.  Conversely, when employees feel no sense of connection to the organization or its leaders we cannot expect safety activities to flourish.”

This is backed up by industry studies. Gallup, for example, found that business units in the top half on employee engagement had, on average, a 44% higher success rate for safety. (Meaning a lower probability of injuries or lost workdays.)  In fact, a study of 23,910 business units compared top quartile and bottom quartile engagement scores and found that those in the bottom quartile averaged 62% more accidents.

Here’s a real-world example: at adult beverage company Molson Coors, engaged employees were found to be five times less likely than nonengaged  employees to have a safety incident and seven times less likely to have a lost-time safety incident. In fact, the average cost of a safety incident for engaged employees was $63, compared with an average of $392 for nonengaged employees. As a result of its high employee engagement, the company reported that it saved $1,721,760 in safety costs over one year.

However, creating a culture of safety isn’t simply a matter of putting up posters, handing out safety glasses and hoping for the best. As the International Atomic Energy Agency recently asserted,

“The desired (safety) culture can not just be imposed by rules or standards.  It has to be continuously constructed, expressed and reaffirmed throughout organization day to day routine. […] The more individuals of an organization (in all levels) build a desire for safety, the more safety becomes an effective shared value of that organization, and the more safety culture is enhanced.”

So how can you inspire the sort of engagement that will create positive social exchanges and help engagement (and safety) flourish?

The answer, I would argue, lies in the combination of Positive Reinforcement and the Just-in-Time business model.

Positive Reinforcement: As psychologist BF Skinner proved in his work with behavior and response, positive reinforcement—that is, encouraging an action to take place—is far more effective than negative reinforcement.

Just-in-Time (JIT):  JIT is a business strategy by which signals in the process let the system know when to produce a response, (for example, an inventory depletion on the shelf signals production of replacement inventory in the factory).  The strength of JIT is in its timeliness and responsiveness.  There is no waste in the system and it is able to maximize its effectiveness.

Hard hat and gogglesMost safety experts already subscribe to the proven ABC (Antecedent — Behavior — Consequence) model. The ABC model indicates that, to change behavior, one has to change the consequences experienced after the behavior takes place. By adding the principles above to the mix, once can ensure that the consequences are powerful and positive enough to change the behavior.

The reason positive reinforcement and JIT work together so well can be summed up in the words of writer and safety guru Peter L Mitchell: “Positive reinforcement is most powerful when it is given as the person is doing the job. It weakens with the passage of time. The larger the gap between the behavior that you’re positively reinforcing and the reinforcement itself, the weaker it becomes. To reinforce your safety culture, you have to select behavior that you see and reinforce it on the spot.” (Emphasis is mine.)

That means that however well meant, your monthly or quarterly awards for safety are coming in far too late to count as good positive reinforcement or most effectively impact your employees’ behavior.

One sweet spot where safety, JIT and positive reinforcement find their best synergy is in a good, strategic, recognition program:

  1. Strategic recognition reflects only positive reinforcement. It leverages appreciation and reward as powerful motivational tools, allowing your employees to be inspired to “catch someone doing something right”.
  2. Strategic recognition incorporates the spirit of JIT—occurring as close as possible to the event that took place, and targeted in on the specific behavior that needs reinforcement, for maximum impact.

And finally, because it is strategic and tied to your core values, employee recognition allows you to align your safety culture with your company culture, making those values livable and practicable for your employees and encouraging them to engage and invest in their jobs and in your organization.

Consider “just-in-time recognition” to build your safety and engagement metrics,  and I think you’ll soon be seeing some business results… maybe just in time!

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