Safety is an issue in every work environment, but employees in certain industries face more risks than others.
In those cases, it’s even more important to build a culture that prioritizes safe practices and involves every employee, from the people on the ground to the leadership.
Shawn Mandel takes safety culture very seriously. He’s Vice President of Safety and Risk Management for Waste Connections, a solid waste services company for more than eight million residential, commercial and industrial customers across the U.S. and Canada.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries for 2019, refuse and recyclable material collectors have the sixth most dangerous job in America. They face a rate of 35.2 fatal work injuries per 100,000 workers.
Waste Connections prides itself on being a safety leader, and its approach holds lessons people in every industry can learn from. It combines tech with a fair share of responsibility and holds everyone from leadership to frontline workers accountable.
Based on an episode of the No Accident podcast, here are the safety lessons leaders can learn from Waste Connections’ example, and the unexpected benefits of a safety culture that relies on everyone in the company.
Not All Risks Are Immediately Obvious
When you’re responsible for calculating the potential risks of a work environment, there’s a temptation to focus on the most extreme.
For example, Shawn says that outsiders assume that the most dangerous part of waste management involves big machines in recycling and processing plants. But the most common cause of injury to waste workers are careless drivers who hit them while they collect or empty garbage cans.
On a construction site, you likely have a checklist of procedures for operating the excavator: But do your employees know what to do if someone puts a nail through their hand?
Clearly, there need to be safety protocols for processes that involve obvious dangers, like operating heavy machinery. But workers are often also dealing with more generic risks, and these are more likely to be overlooked.
When building a safety culture, you have to balance your attention between the major risks, and those that are more mundane but still deadly.
How to Use Tech to Improve Safety
The most effective safety cultures use technology in combination with on-the-ground actions to identify and address potential hazards. For example:
- Automate dangerous processes: Make robots or machines do the most dangerous jobs whenever you can. In certain conditions, Waste Connections’ trucks have the ability to collect garbage cans without the driver even having to leave the cab, keeping them out of the road.
- Reviews and retraining: Use technology to monitor your employees’ adherence to safety protocols, and pull them up when they fall short. It’s less about punishment and more about education: The idea is to catch and train out potentially dangerous behaviors and reinforce best practices.
- Employee-wide surveys: The people with the keenest insights into gaps in safety procedures are the people following them every day. Use survey-creation software to build and send a company-wide safety questionnaire. Waste Connections invites its 18,000 employees to take an annual 12-question survey about their experience of safety procedures at work. Typical uptake is around 80%.
Deputizing Everyone in the Organization — Starting From the Top — Strengthens Safety Culture
Most small to medium businesses can’t afford large safety departments. There may be only one person who officially has “safety” in their job title overseeing hundreds of employees.
For example, Shawn estimates that Waste Connections’ official safety team is made up of about 20 people, including two safety managers within each region. However, there are 500 physical locations spread across the U.S. and Canada and 18,000 employees.
It’s not possible to have a person in a hard hat with a clipboard, enforcing safety rules in every work situation. This means your safety culture has to be strong enough to resonate with every single employee and to permeate through every single action.
Related: Safety as a Competitive Advantage
Prioritizing safety culture must start with leadership. When employees trust that company leaders genuinely care about them, they’re less likely to see safety rules set by management as petty and pointless and are more likely to follow them.
But setting and enforcing protocols can’t start and end in the boardroom. Everyone in the organization must see themselves as a safety officer. When everyone recognizes that they are part of upholding standards, individuals are less likely to let their guard down and stop paying attention.
Also, no matter how sincere the leaders are, frontline workers are more likely to take safety rules seriously when they’re being laid down by someone doing the same job.
For example, think about wearing a high vis vest when collecting garbage cans. It’s easy to dismiss someone sitting in an office thousands of miles away, who warns you that drivers are more likely to see you in time if you’re wearing fluorescent yellow.
But when someone who has been doing the job for a while, who you work with side-by-side every day, tells you that a driver nearly hit them because they weren’t wearing their vest, you pay attention.
Trust works both ways. When leaders know that their workforce is as invested in monitoring safety protocols as they are, they’re less likely to micromanage. When you know your employees are keeping each other safe, you trust them to get on with the job, which makes the company more efficient.
The business benefits of a strong safety culture
Even if protecting workers wasn’t motivation enough, being known for a strong, company-wide health and safety culture will help you stand out from competitors. Not only in terms of winning contracts with clients but also with potential employees.
Employees who work in dangerous industries understand that they put themselves at risk for their employers. They’re more likely to want to work for a company that prides itself on making their safety its number one priority. If you have a safety record that beats the industry average, you can attract the highest quality candidates.
Typically, companies with strong safety records also experience less turnover. Given that hiring can be costly for companies, particularly when on-the-job training is required, this is more than a nice PR claim: it’s a money-saver.
This article is based on an episode of the No Accident podcast.