Chapter 2 - YES YOU CAN…Conduct your own safety perception survey
Why a safety perception survey?
If people are truly a company’s most important resource, why do we spend so little time asking them what they think about their work? Some companies spend more time poring over accident statistics and graphs and reacting to accident trends than on doing what most corporate policies say they will do—involve employees in making health and safety decisions. Employees are left with the perception that management is only concerned about budget figures, production and product quality. During our audits, we hear the all-too-common refrain, “Management is only interested in the bottom line.”
The focus of any corporate improvement process should be to problem-solve by tapping into the collective knowledge of the employees. Successful and profitable organizations look for ways to get improvement information from the workers. To these companies, it just makes sense to spend some time asking employees what they believe needs to be done to make things better.
Employees’ beliefs or perceptions are what perception surveys and this guidebook are all about. The perception survey approach helps companies to systematically gather perceptions that are quantified and presented by section, location, position or in another manner of your choosing. We are not aware of any other safety measurement approach that has the ability to offer as much detailed information about what employees believe to be true. Therefore, no other measurement approach offers so many opportunities to improve your company’s health and safety and management system.
Dr. Dan Petersen was once quoted as saying: “I have no idea why safety perception surveys (to some companies) are such a hard sell.” Why, after all, wouldn’t every CEO want to receive unfiltered information on corporate safety issues and potential risks? Our experience is that fear prevents some decision-makers from agreeing to give this measurement tool a try. There are many managers working for organizations that are perfectly happy with the status quo. Change is an unknown that introduces discomfort and a certain amount of risk. The perception survey, to some managers, may reveal far more than they want revealed. True, there are other managers that welcome employee input. The problem is that sometimes it only takes one dissenter to put a halt the process. We have actually watched this unfold in a management meeting; more about that later.
Safety hardware versus safety software
Numerous studies conclude that it takes more to achieve safety excellence than mastering the traditional safety elements. Achieving world-class safety is dependent on not only an organization’s safety “hardware” (the elements of safety, such as inspections, investigations and safety meetings) but also its “software” (employee perceptions, attitudes and values). The safety perception survey, when constructed and administered properly, is an instrument that can measure both determinants of safety success.
For decades, companies have focused almost solely on their safety hardware. We believe this is one of the key reasons why national incident statistics are not improving. Some companies feel the soft stuff is better left to the psychologists. Instead they prefer to focus on the tangibles like investigations and inspections rather than employee perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. What they do not realize, is that it is the soft factors that frequently determine how well the hardware will function. Most safety leaders agree that we need to focus on the soft safety factors. A farmer would never think of planting a crop in unfertile soil. Similarly, if the corporate ground is not fertile, sowing the seeds of safety will prove to be impossible. Here is a statement you may find hard to believe. One of the safest companies I have ever consulted with (according to their own staff) did not have a formal health and safety program in place—not one safety element.
Companies need to pay a whole lot more attention to factors such as employees’ perceptions of management’s credibility, the perceived level of trust, peer norms and values and job satisfaction if they ever hope to achieve safety excellence.
Soft factors often determine who’s in and who’s out, or who is behaving appropriately (according to the group) and who is not. They can literally determine whether a new employee thrives or survives in the organization. If you ignore the softer side of safety, you will likely fail in your efforts to obtain outstanding safety results.
Here’s an example. Let’s suppose your organization has personal protective equipment (PPE) compliance issues. A typical hardware-based solution to this problem would be to step up training or crack down on compliance, perhaps increase the number of inspections. The solution, however, may lie elsewhere. If management has a track record of allowing other managers and supervisors to not comply with the PPE-use policy, employees may simply be doing what management clearly deems acceptable. In this example the solution lies more with management’s credibility than worker discipline or knowledge.
A perception survey can help you identify the software issues and, therefore, the hardware solutions. No other safety measurement approach currently in use offers so much flexibility and value.
It is interesting to note that the same soft factors that influence safety performance also influence performance relative to productivity, quality and/or service. If management lacks credibility, corporate productivity as well as safety is likely to be adversely affected. Consider the study in Table 1, which was prepared by J. P. Kotter and J. L. Heskett in their book entitled “Corporate Culture and Performance.”
This study was carried out between 1977 and 1988 and it concludes that companies that have performance enhancing cultures significantly outperform firms that do not. The case for paying attention to softer, cultural factors cannot be made any clearer than by the preceding study. The safety perception survey process has the ability to identify the cultural factors that affect both safety and organizational outputs. Viewed from this perspective, safety perception surveys should be considered as invaluable to the effective management of the business.
Perception is reality
A safety perception survey yields employee perceptions that may or may not accurately reflect reality. However, these perceptions are important, because to the employees they are reality. If employees truly believe the boss is not committed to health and safety or that health and safety ranks number 10 on his or her scale of values, this perception will have a strong influence on their behaviour. Left with this perception, employees may choose to take shortcuts to meet work demands. It doesn’t matter whether the perception is correct or incorrect, or good or bad. Employee behaviour will be influenced as long as the perception prevails. Employees will generally do what they believe their boss wants or expects from them. Beliefs influence attitudes, and attitudes influence behaviours.
Consider the story of the company that gave every staff member a turkey at Christmas. One year, a committee decided that the company should donate the turkey money to the needy instead of distributing it to the staff. How could anyone disagree with such a suggestion? Unfortunately, this change was not well communicated; many of the employees were not informed of the new, noble cause. The majority thought that management had simply decided to take the turkey money away. As much as 10 years later, the turkey tragedy still came up at safety meetings. Whenever the discussions turned to management commitment, someone would bring up the turkey travesty.
This perception prevailed, simply because changes to the turkey fund had not been communicated. Do you think this affected employees’ behaviour in any way? If you answered yes, you are correct. After all, how committed could management be if they would take turkeys off employees’ tables at Christmas?
People have long memories. When the tale was recounted at the meetings, it was almost as though the turkeys had been whisked off the employees’ plates yesterday. Remember, we’re talking about an incident that occurred 10 years ago. Although these employees’ perceptions were far from accurate, they influenced how they behaved toward management. Perceptions can lead to many forms of unwanted behaviour. Had this company known about and dealt with the perception properly, behaviour could have been positively influenced.
If you can determine perceptions, you can often understand why people behave the way they do, and if you can understand why employees behave the way they do, you can influence their behaviour. A perception survey can reveal factors that influence employee actions, such as peer pressure, production pressures and group norms. Once identified, behaviours can be managed and influenced. Many companies put all their efforts into ensuring the technical elements of their program are in place, only to discover that the effectiveness of these elements is undermined by the negative perceptions of employees.
Perception surveys and behaviour-based safety
Before you attempt a behaviour-based safety (BBS) program, conduct a safety perception survey. Many companies fail at BBS simply because they have not met the necessary prerequisites. Behaviour-based programs won’t fly unless there is a supportive environment that allows people to accept the approach and sustain it. For example, if management lacks credibility or if trust is lacking throughout the organization, it is clearly not a good time to introduce one-on-one peer behaviour sampling. Trust and credibility are prerequisites to launching an effective behaviour sampling program. If employees feel threatened by their peers observing them, or fear management penalties for unsafe behaviour, the environment is not conducive to peer observations. Under these circumstances, employees will not participate in the BBS program freely because they will perceive BBS as a tool to force compliance rather than a proactive observation process.
Before you can influence behavioural changes, you need to identify the factors that are influencing the behaviours. Monitoring or observing worker behaviour is not in itself a solution to embedded beliefs, attitudes or perceptions of what is the right or accepted way of doing things. Counts of behaviours in this case may not produce any lasting behaviour change. Certainly, employees may modify their actions while they are being monitored, but the goal is to influence employees to work safely when nobody is watching.
Involving employees in a behaviour observation process does not change the reasons why employees behave unsafely. They may have very good motives for acting the way they do. Discovering what these reasons are is often more effective than merely observing employees and encouraging good behavior. By focusing only on employee behavior, BBS may miss the underlying reasons why the employees act the way they do—reasons like poor management or a lack of resources.
Group dynamics are another behaviour-influencing factor. Group beliefs frequently create an environment where only one belief is tolerated. Suppose you start a new job where coffee breaks are supposed to be 15 minutes long, but long- term employees take up to 25 minutes. It would be difficult for you, a new employee, to get up and leave after 15 minutes when the rest of your peers are staying for 25. In fact, your co-workers may insist that you stay longer. To change this unwanted behavior, you first need to know what factors are influencing it.
To influence employee behaviours, we need to deal with the factors that are causing them. Are they inside the employee’s head? Are they external factors, such as peer pressure or a lack of resources? A safety perception survey, conducted as outlined in this guidebook, can help you identify all of the factors that influence behaviours. We need to identify the reasons why people work safely or take risks and then create environments that support working safely.
Table 2 helps to explain some of the key factors that influence why workers behave the way that they do.
As you can see, many of the factors that affect safety are ignored by most current methods of safety measurement. Organizations that overlook these factors can never achieve world-class safety. Even if their current measurement methods suggest that there is no room for improvement, they may be in for some disastrous surprises. Many large corporations can attest to this fact and have had to defend themselves under an increasingly unforgiving legal system.
Employees are a corporate safety program’s greatest resource. They contain a wealth of knowledge and experience in all of the areas that lead to safe behavior. The strength of a perception survey is its ability to tap into this vital knowledge base. When employees can respond to a survey anonymously, they feel safe. When they feel safe, their responses can be very revealing.
This and the previous chapter focused on the importance of and rationale for the safety perception survey process. We spent some time on the rationale because it is important. We hope we have convinced you that perception surveys are worth trying, and have provided you with enough material that you can convince others in your company as well. We will get down to details on the nitty-gritty of the surveying process in the following chapters. Here is a brief summary of the key points we have been trying to emphasize:
There is no other safety measurement tool in common use today that has the potential of evaluating all factors affecting safety performance (i.e. job, human and organizational factors.
Numerous studies and safety leaders such as Dr. Dan Petersen support the survey assessment process above others.
When administered as described in this guidebook, surveys are a flexible measurement tool that can meet the specific measurement needs of all organizations.
Surveys are the best way to obtain information on the “soft” factors (employee perceptions, attitudes and values) that influence workplace safety.
If comments are included in the survey, the process can yield both quantitative and qualitative information.
Safety perception surveys solicit perceptions which, right or wrong, influence how people behave when the boss is not around.
The factors that influence improvements in safety are the same factors that influence improvements in all other aspects of the business (productivity, service and quality). The actions you take to improve employee perceptions relative to safety helps improve all other aspects of the business.When viewed from this perspective, the process adds value to effectively managing the business.
To influence a change in employee behaviours, you must know why employees are behaving as they are. A safety perception survey can identify the factors influencing the behaviours.
Perception surveys can identify perception gaps between management, supervisors and workers indicating where the groups are and are not aligned.
Survey information is solicited from those that know. Their scores provide more reliable information than any an external evaluator.
Valuable assessment information can be gathered by location, position, department, age, sex, etc.
Management cannot lead effectively without the information that employee perceptions can provide. Management needs to know what is really happening inside the organization and inside the hearts and minds of their employees. To influence behaviour change, the organization needs to solicit employee perceptions on all of the factors that affect behaviours. Safety efforts that only focus on some of these factors get only a part of the picture. In the end their efforts to improve often serve only to add another level of bureaucracy for workers to contend with without providing substantial results.
We hope you are convinced that safety perception surveys are worth a try. In the chapters that follow, we will provide you with the guidance you need to conduct a perception survey yourself.
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