Building a Safety Program That Centers Around People — Including the Workers and the C-Suite

April 05, 2022 | Blog
building a safety program
  • Meeting regulatory requirements is just the first part of a safety professional’s job. It’s your interactions with people — workers and executives — that can really make a practical difference in creating a safer workplace.
  • In an episode of the No Accident podcast, safety consultant and president of the Learning Factory, Regina McMichael emphasizes the human component of building a strong safety culture and building a safety program centered around people. It’s not about laying down rules: You have to give people a reason to care.
  • If you’re looking to make big changes, you need to get executives on board. You must prove that building a safety program can help them meet their business objectives.

People don’t become safety professionals because they enjoy being the voice of doom. Many do it because they have deeply personal reasons related to something that went wrong on the job, or elsewhere.

That includes Regina McMichael. She went into the safety profession after her first husband fell to his death from a roof at his jobsite. Wanting to save as many people as possible from a similar fate, Regina studied safety at college, and now she works as a consultant and speaker. You may know her as president of The Learning Factory, or as the self-described Safety Ninja.

Regina believes that safety cultures must center around people. Checking all the regulatory boxes is just the first step. You have to give people a reason to invest in the procedures you set up.

That includes the workers on job sites all the way up to the executives. Safety isn’t just good for people: It’s good for business. And safety professionals with big ideas need to know how to prove that.

Based on an episode of the No Accident podcast, here’s how to move the conversation beyond regulatory dos and don’ts, how to convince executives to see safety as a business asset, and unorthodox ways to determine whether your safety program is truly having an impact.


Don’t Get Stuck in Your Compliance Phase

The early days of a safety program usually focus on meeting government requirements. That’s a great place to start — just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that’s the full extent of the job.

As a safety professional, you need to turn the rules and regulations you’ve put into place into an observable safety culture. Culture starts on the page, but once people are involved, it comes to life.

Many in the industry assume that the regulatory and human aspects of safety programs complement each other. But in Regina’s experience, most people need a more compelling reason than, “It’s the law,” or even, “It’s risky,” to convince them to follow any safety rule.

That’s why you have to move beyond compliance—and focus on communication. Explain not just the what but also the why.

Regina uses the example of knowingly driving faster than the speed limit. We all know it’s risky and illegal, but most people do it anyway.

Clearly, pointing out the law and risks involved isn’t enough. Instead, Regina recommends having a frank discussion about the real-world consequences of not following safety procedures. In the example regarding speeding:

  • It could cause a crash, resulting in serious injuries, or even the death of the driver, passengers, pedestrians and others.
  • It may cost a lot of money: The driver’s insurance premiums can go up, they could lose their license and they might have to pay for repairs and medical bills.

Discussing outcomes moves the safety conversation beyond a list of rules. You have to know the rules, yes, but you also have to motivate people to follow them.


Safety is Caring

The most powerful way to persuade people to follow safety procedures is to show them that the reason certain rules exist is that you care about keeping people safe. In turn, you want them to care about the people they work with.

This is another instance when communication skills are crucial. You need to build trust and authentic relationships with the workforce you’re making rules for. They need to know you genuinely care.

People who understand that you have their best interests at heart are more likely to follow your guidance. People who believe you’re telling them what to do for the sake of a power rush will not take you or your rules seriously.

Promoting a culture of caring has the added bonus of producing metrics that prove your safety program is making progress.

Regina says that it’s important to show executives positive leading indicators around safety, as well as lagging indicators, like a reduction in accidents. She points out that leading indicators tend to be less tangible, so you will have to use your communication skills to convey their significance.

For example:

  • More people feel comfortable discussing safety with each other outside official safety meetings and raising potential hazards.
  • People see the safety officer as someone they can trust with non-safety issues.
  • People are so convinced of the value of their safety equipment that they purchase some to use at home.

These examples demonstrate people pivoting from seeing safety as a nuisance to understanding that it’s intended to protect them. It’s when conversations about safety arise organically that you know the message has permeated.


Executive Involvement Drives Big Safety Plans

Controversial opinion: Not every company needs a safety officer in the C-suite. Some organizations and safety professionals are happy to run a basic program that simply ticks all the boxes. These are examples of businesses that don’t feel the need to push for a top-in-class safety culture.

If that’s you, fair enough. But if you dream of implementing a company-wide, top-down overhaul, and building a new safety culture that reaches every single employee on a personal level, first you’ll need to win the executives over.

For example, if you want to prove to workers that safety is the primary concern — above productivity and profit — that needs to start at the top. Otherwise, your efforts will be completely undermined the moment an executive balks at reducing their margins in the name of implementing a safety measure.

Since the vast majority of executives are not going to take the time to learn about safety, you have to learn to speak their language.

If you want a seat at the table, not only do you have to prove you can keep up with the conversation, but also, that you have a lot to contribute to it. Executives often think of safety professionals as No-Men (and No-Women) who flash bright red lights and interfere with big, bold ideas. Prove to the C-suite that safety is good for the bottom line.

Regina says that many organizations that reach out to her have been abruptly awoken to the importance of safety programs as a result of an accident. Initiating a robust safety program might not be the flashiest business goal, but as those just-a-moment-too-late organizations can attest to, it can save both lives and money.

Some executives will be more open to making safety a priority than others. To gauge a response, look at how willing they are to invest in things like employee benefits and human resources. If business leaders care enough about their workers’ welfare to invest in these areas, then they’re more likely to take safety seriously too.

Rules are just the foundation of a strong safety program. You have to convince everyone to join you to build the rest.

This article is based on an episode of the No Accident podcast.

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