Why Is Management Buy-in Essential for Workplace Health and Safety?
For many of the world's leading organizations, health and safety is a core value that shapes every business decision. For others, workplace health and safety is simply an obligation, a box they must check to stay compliant and avoid fines. Every company has a unique safety culture based on its beliefs, attitudes, and, most importantly, its actions around health and safety.
A company's corporate culture encompasses the attitude and approach to workplace health and safety, just like any other element of culture, it ultimately comes down to health and safety buy-in. Buy-in is when employees understand and agree with workplace safety rules and values. They see the importance of following these rules and therefore follow them without objection, not to avoid punishment, but because they value their own life and livelihood and see the worth of safety practices. However, without company-wide buy-in, health and safety programs can only go so far.
The Role of Safety Professionals in Workplace Safety
Safety is a team effort, and every employee within a business must play their part for it to work. However, the first person that pops into most people's minds when they think of safety and health are EHS (environmental health and safety) professionals.
An EHS professional's role is to protect the health and safety of employees and the company from the negative repercussions of accidents and regulatory non-compliance. Many organizations have one EHS professional in charge of managing the entire process for their company.
Unfortunately, companies with poor health and safety cultures often view the EHS professional as the bad guy, someone there to shut down the job and make their life more difficult. This contentious relationship may result from a lack of understanding of the role and the approach some EHS professionals take.
Some people believe that EHS professionals have the most significant influence on the overall safety performance of an organization. While they may steer the organization's workplace health and safety, they are not the most crucial position affecting a company's health and safety performance.
Management's Role in Workplace Health and Safety
Leadership's perception of safety is one of the most significant barriers to employee buy-in. While EHS professionals implement safety and health measures, the effectiveness of their efforts pivots on the acceptance of management.
When leaders view workplace health and safety negatively, so will their followers. Some management sees safety as more red tape, an impediment to progress, and an unnecessary expense. Unfortunately, these personal opinions steer their decisions, actions, and how they speak about workplace health and safety.
How a Lack of Management Buy-in With Safety Affects Everyone
Actions speak louder than words. Managers that say they care about health and safety, but don't demonstrate it through action, are setting a poor example. Even something as small as an executive not wearing mandatory PPE when entering a job site is enough to show workers that safety isn't a priority. After all, if your boss doesn't care, why should you?
Managers who view safety negatively will speak about it in those terms. They will complain about the safety person, scoff at the latest health and safety regulations, and grumble about the cost of safety. They will create a negative culture around workplace health and safety that their crews will agree with or fall in line with to stay on their boss's good side.
Managers who haven't bought into workplace health and safety are less consistent with rules and more likely to break them when it's convenient. When management plays fast and loose with safety rules, how can you expect employees not to do the same?
Change Perceptions by Explaining the True Cost of Safety
These attitudes about safety may come down to an incomplete understanding of its costs and benefits. Dollars and cents are how the majority of businesses measure success and failure. So why wouldn't managers balk at the expense of safety when they can't see the value? However, while safety may not earn money, it can save an organization millions.
Most people within management understand some of the basic costs of accidents—worker's compensation, regulatory fines, attorneys fees, and medical bills. However, many do not consider the many other costs of accidents that can affect their bottom line.
When a worker is hurt badly enough to require days away from work, it directly impacts a project's productivity. Your team is now understaffed and has lost whatever knowledge and skill that person brought to the table. Now you're forced to use resources to train other employees to fill the position or spend time and money to hire a new person.
Your company likely has insurance to cover the cost of accidents. However, using that insurance likely increases your insurance rates, meaning it now costs more to operate your business. For example, consider your car insurance; if you are accident-free, your insurance company will sometimes give you incentives and lower your rates. However, your rates are likely to increase if you are involved in accidents and that insurance pays out.
Another area not commonly identified as a cost of accidents is how they affect your company's public perception. For example, if you bid on contracts, many organizations will refuse to work with you if your injury rate is over a certain level. They view you as an unsafe company and don't want the risk. So your past accidents are now preventing you from getting future work.
Finally, illnesses and injuries take a lot of time and resources to manage properly, in addition to the impact of lost productivity and replacing workers who are unable to perform their duties. When we talk about incidents and accidents, they can be categorized in two ways, illness and injury. Often people focus on injuries at work; slips, trips, falls or accidents with tools or machinery. An example of a workplace illness could be workplace exposure to COVID and possibly long COVID or exposure to silica which can lead to silicosis. Injuries are not always sudden and due to an accident or incident. For example, repetitive motions which are common in many trades, like construction, manufacturing and others, can lead to long-term musculoskeletal injuries and illnesses which can permanently disable someone from working any job. The impact of incidents, accidents, illnesses and injuries on managers includes time spent on administrative tasks and meetings for incident reviews and investigations, instead of achieving company goals.
Want to Learn More?
Getting management on board with safety is the first step toward creating a strong workplace safety culture. After all, if management doesn't care about safety, neither will their employees. To learn more about how to engage management and other professionals across your organization in workplace health and safety, read our white paper "Safety is Everyone's Job: Organizational Collaboration."