When working to improve your safety management system, there is a good possibility that you’ll run into some resistance. Luckily, you’re not alone.
Pam Walaski, CSP, senior program director at Specialty Technical Consultants, has spent decades in occupational safety and health. She believes overcoming objections starts with developing an understanding of your organization’s goals and objectives and building strong relationships with your management and workforce.
“If you don’t have a foundation in place first in terms of what you know about your organization’s strategic plan and the relationships with your workers, those objections are going to keep coming up and you’re going to have a hard time dealing with them,” she says. “If it doesn’t come from a collaborative effort with you and the people who are directly involved in what you’re proposing, then I think you’ve missed the boat.”
Walaski shares four of the most common types of safety pushback you can expect to hear and how you should respond.
1. “It’s Not in Our Budget"
Part of being a safety manager is learning to make the business case for your initiatives. When seeking the buy-in of senior leaders, money and time are important considerations — but Walaski says that shouldn’t be where you start the conversation.
“How much it will cost in terms of time and money is the wrong place to start,” she says. “When we lead with that as the reason why we should do something, we will continue to get those negative types of responses.”
Instead, Walaski says you have to start by understanding and communicating how your program supports the organization’s strategic plan.
“Until we can tie what we think needs to be done to a business objective or the strategic plan, it’s much harder to make a convincing argument,” she says.
She adds that while there are tools you can use to demonstrate the financial impact of safety and health initiatives, they are only useful if they help you connect what you’re doing to the bigger picture.
“I know a lot of safety professionals use things like return on investment and cost-benefit analysis, and those are important,” Walaski says. “But even if you get a good return on your investment or you can prove that there’s a benefit to spending the money, it doesn’t necessarily matter unless you’re supporting a larger strategy.”
2. “It’s Not One of Our Top Priorities”
A key element to overcoming objections from senior management is building consensus around risk levels.
“If you’re finding your initiatives are not being approved or people are objecting to them, then take a look at what people think really are the problems,” Walaski says. “If you can get the organization to agree on what they are, then you’ve got the ship moving in the same direction.”
Collaborate with your team to identify the most significant risks, both in terms of severity and probability.
“One of the things safety professionals need to do in their workplaces is make sure that everybody is on the same page about the biggest problems,” she explains. “When you can get consensus among those in your organization, it’s much easier to make the case for a particular initiative.”
Consensus-building and compromise are critical skills that should be used early in the process of developing initiatives. Don’t wait until you need to submit your proposal.
“When you can get consensus in your organization that these are the things that are most important right now, it’s much easier to make the case that a particular initiative will help address a particular risk,” she says.
3. “We Need to Focus Elsewhere”
Do you know which hazards and risks are most concerning to your workforce? Start conversations and educate yourself before working to launch new projects.
“Don’t forget that sometimes the best ideas aren’t yours,” Walaski explains. “Sometimes the best ideas for improvements or things that need to be done come directly from your workforce.”
Gathering this kind of information requires strong relationships and trust.
“People will speak up if they feel it’s in their best interest to do so and if they feel it’s safe to do so. If people aren’t speaking up, there’s a reason,” Walaski explains. “You have to recognize that maybe the solution isn’t to keep asking, but to create an environment where asking gets the answer.”
4. “It Hasn’t Happened Here”
Senior management may not be concerned about a particular hazard or incident if it’s never happened at one of their facilities. Even if you haven’t had an incident for a long time, it’s important to demonstrate the consequences of what could happen if an incident were to occur.
Walaski recalls an experience where she was struggling to convince senior leaders that their organization needed to be more proactive about how they were managing the risks associated with their motor vehicle fleet. Then, in the space of a couple of weeks, there were two very serious incidents.
“In both situations, the employees walked away with minor injuries, but the photographs of their completely demolished vehicles provided me with the opportunity I’d been looking for,” she says. “I was able to use those photographs to put together a presentation in an executive committee meeting, and it really turned them around to appreciate where we were and what we needed to be doing.”
Use specific stories and images when you can to demonstrate the risk of incidents and how the initiatives you’re proposing can help.
Listen to the Case for Safety Podcast featuring Pam Walaski for further insights on overcoming common objections.
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