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How Worker Engagement Can Help Improve Your Safety Management System

Apr 22, 2022

Group of office colleagues engaged in conversation

When Dr. Jan Wachter, CSP, CIH, professor in the Safety Sciences Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, thinks about why worker engagement is important to safety management, he reflects on learning to play piano as a child. When he worked with a teacher who asked for his input and seemed invested in his development, he learned much more than he had with a previous teacher who had simply taken him though the lessons.

This experience helped him understand the distinction between participation and engagement.

“There is a profound difference between engagement — where you’re a part of the system, you’re asked for your input and people value you — and participating because someone is paying you for doing it,” he says. “That's why worker engagement is not only important for safety, but also for doing your work the best you possibly can.”

While standards such as ISO 45001 and ANSI/ASSP Z10 provide a framework for developing a safety and health management system, it takes an actively engaged workforce force for that system to be effective. Workers should be involved in systems development — after all, they’re the ones who understand the day-to-day reality of each task — but that’s only the beginning.

“When you develop a safety management system, there are policies, plans and procedures intended to identify, evaluate and control risk,” Wachter explains. “But that’s only half of the equation. Having systems in place does not necessarily mean things are going to get done.”

For successful implementation, you have to earn their buy-in and trust.

“When workers invest their minds and hearts in a safety management system, there’s a greater chance of them implementing the requirements.”

Workforce engagement can take many forms, from workers telling managers the type of training they’d like to receive to being on accident investigation teams or writing their own standard operating procedures. ISO 45001 includes a section on worker consultation and participation that provides many examples for how you can engage workers in a safety management system.

There may be times when workers do not follow established process and procedures, but resist the assumption that they are careless or arrogant. In some cases, workers must make system adjustments to carry out their tasks. That’s why it’s critical to continue asking questions and evaluating system effectiveness.

“People assume that work is planned with the right way of doing things, and workers are deviating from it. But quite frankly, it could be that the workers are adapting their situation because the safety management system is deficient,” Wachter says.

Furthermore, safety management systems are often too rigid to effectively manage the uncertainty and changing conditions that exist within the workplace. Regularly asking your workforce about gaps and deficiencies in the system can help you make necessary adjustments.

“A feedback loop needs to occur; continual improvement needs to occur; working procedures need to change and lessons need to be incorporated,” he explains. “That’s why pre-work briefings and post-work briefings are so important to get worker engagement.”

Connect with workers on a daily basis to understand what’s going right, what’s going wrong and when to intervene.

“Workers are in the best place to identify hazards, to identify defenses which might be failing in the organization and determine the best ways to control things,” he says. “They see what is and is not working on a daily basis, and they should have input into policy."

When workers are engaged in the development, implementation and improvement of your safety management system, they will be better prepared to respond to the unexpected. And your organizational culture will benefit.

“Engagement means workers are given autonomy within the safety management system to decide how to apply plans, procedures, processes and policies to fit their work conditions,” Wachter explains. “It's autonomy; it’s freedom; it’s workers thinking that they're more than just a cog in the system or a tool for production.”

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