Joe Mlynek, CSP, OHST
Updated: Mar 6
We learn from experience. A simple but accurate statement. I was struggling to figure out a topic for this month’s blog when it dawned on me. Why not share a few personal experiences that may help others improve their safety message.
Compliance versus Commitment
It would be difficult to argue that maintaining compliance with OSHA regulations is not important. One could argue, however, that focusing all efforts on compliance does not ensure success. OSHA provides guidelines for creating and maintaining a safe work environment. Notice the use of the word guidelines, not playbook. There is not a page in the standards that we can turn to for every scenario that may arise. Therefore, our safety efforts need to rely on OSHA guidance while implementing common sense approaches that focus on protecting employees. As leaders, we need to be committed to eliminating exposure, fostering accountability, offering feedback and recognition, and defining what being safe actually is. Our dedication to safety is driven by our commitment to employees, not compliance.
Early on in my own career, I frequently referenced OSHA when communicating with employees. I believed that using OSHA as reinforcement was a motivating factor. Over time, I realized that the message I was sending did not express the level of commitment that the company had toward keeping people safe. Sure, we did not want to be cited for hazards or lack of programs, but the real reason for the safety effort was the well-being of the employee. Upon reflection, I started to think of the message being received by employees. What does an employee think when the management team starts fixing hazards in the work area solely because they may be “concerned about an OSHA inspection.” Perhaps they believe that issues are being addressed for fear of a citation rather than concern for their well-being. I encourage you to reflect on the messages being sent to employees when it comes to safety. Try to eliminate compliance from safety conversations. Focus on the commitment that company has toward keeping people free from harm and eliminating exposure to hazards. Compliance is important, but commitment changes culture.
It seems today that there is a metric for everything. Everything is measured, graphed, charted, and analyzed. Safety metrics are important and should be reviewed, but the most effective method is not always the traditional approach. For instance, “last month we had two recordables and five lost workdays.” I used this approach early on in my own career as well. This approach takes the human element out of the equation. People become statistics. Over time, I have learned to drop the use of words like recordables or lost workdays in favor of an approach that focuses on the true meaning of the metrics. “We hurt two people last month to the point where they couldn’t return to work for five days.” This approach registers with employees at all levels of the organization. People become the focus of the discussion rather than statistics.
“Safety is the Most Important Thing We Do”
I once worked with a plant manager who used this phrase routinely. To his credit, he actually did believe it. After an employee meeting, he asked me why several people rolled their eyes when he said it. I explained to him that while safety is important to him, the employees feel that it gets overshadowed by production during busy times. We managed to address this issue and construct a more accurate message. The message intertwined safety, quality, production, and customer service. All were equally important. His new message was “We must produce quality products and serve our customers safely”. Whatever the message is, we must make sure that it is accurate.
We learn from experience. Reflect on your own experiences and see if there may be an opportunity to improve the safety message. As leaders, we commit to safety because we care about people, the rest of the benefits help justify our efforts.
Joe Mlynek is a partner and subject matter expert at Safety Made Simple, Inc. He has over 20 years of experience in safety at the corporate level and as a consultant. He is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Occupational Safety and Health Technician (OHST). Joe can be reached at email@example.com