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Evolving Safety Strategies: Adapting to Changing Workforces

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

In the ever-changing landscape of organizations, whether due to internal growth, mergers, and acquisitions, or generational shifts, it's crucial to assess if your current safety capacity is keeping pace. Many safety programs can become stagnant during periods of relative success, losing their sense of vulnerability. However, strategic change in safety is essential in today's climate to avoid the possibility of catastrophic accidents.

For the past few decades, organizations have benefited from experienced workforces. These seasoned workers possess a heightened awareness of workplace dangers and have fostered a culture of looking out for one another. New employees could assimilate into this safety culture relatively easily with minimal onboarding, thanks to the support and informal training provided by their experienced colleagues.

However, challenges arise when the balance shifts and the experienced workforce is diluted with a high influx of new hires or when senior workers retire in large numbers. In such scenarios, new employees often receive inadequate training and lack robust support systems. Safety professionals find themselves spending more time in the workplace addressing performance issues. As critical safety issues become more challenging to manage with an inexperienced workforce, accident rates start to rise. Safety staff members find themselves in constant fire-fighting mode, reacting to accidents. Accident investigations consume a significant portion of their time, while corrective actions take longer to implement. Organizational leaders begin questioning the growing failure rate.

Unfortunately, many organizations fail to realize in a timely manner that changing workforces require corresponding changes in safety efforts. When they do recognize the need, their reaction often consists of doing more rather than addressing the problem strategically. New programs are initiated without sufficient consideration of how they fit within existing programs, and their effectiveness or efficiency is seldom measured.

This programmatic approach has created a market for safety programs, with consultants and training companies offering solutions to improve results. Ironically, many of these programs produce short-term positive outcomes known as the Hawthorne Effect. When an organization adopts a new program and sees immediate improvements in lagging indicators, leaders often declare the problem solved and move on to other priorities. Unfortunately, relying solely on programmatic approaches to safety tends to fail in the long run.

A Shift in Perspective: Embracing Safety Strategy

The alternative to programmatic approaches is to reevaluate the overall safety strategy. It's ironic that organizations with strategic approaches in almost every aspect of business often lack a genuine safety strategy. Strategy begins with envisioning what success looks like—a vision statement tailored to your organization rather than an abstract notion of perfection. Vision statements should inspire and motivate workers, not demotivate them. Defining success in terms of performance rather than simply results, is crucial. Goals like "Zero Accidents" and "Everyone Goes Home Safe" are aspirational but not strategies. Instead, focus on identifying the specific performance factors that will drive those results and determine how to replicate them consistently.

Strategic thinking opens new possibilities that programmatic approaches tend to overlook. Questions arise regarding who should set the safety strategy, who should execute it in the workplace, what training is necessary, how candidates for new positions should be screened, what communication methods will foster focus, what metrics will provide workers with motivational insights, what kind of safety leadership and management is required, and whether safety should be embedded into the organization or remain a separate department.

Moreover, it's essential to consider the kind of safety culture that will sustain long-term desired performance and the engagement opportunities required to cultivate this culture.

Once a strategy emerges, it may be necessary to assess the current safety culture and identify influential factors. While some argue that assessments should precede strategy development, assessments often highlight problem areas, leading strategy sessions to focus on closing gaps rather than true strategic development. Prioritizing strategy over problem-solving ensures a proactive and preventative approach rather than a reactionary one.

After defining the strategy and assessing the current status, it may be time to revisit programs that were previously dismissed. These programs can now be aligned with the strategic framework rather than solely targeting old problems. Many organizations find that refining existing programs is more effective than adopting new ones.

Lastly, manage the perception of change to prevent overwhelming the workforce. Modifying an existing program may appear less daunting than starting from scratch with something new. Even new programs can be positioned as the next logical step in a progression rather than a complete reset.

Leaders must stay attuned to the evolution of their organizations and recognize that changes in the workforce necessitate corresponding changes in safety efforts. Strategic safety thinking should be driven by leaders who take the lead in prioritizing safety, just as they do with other key organizational values. Safety professionals can provide support, but safety should not be delegated entirely—it is the responsibility of leaders to develop and implement a comprehensive safety strategy.

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