Do Your Employees Have a Stake in Health and Safety?

Encouraging employees to be legitimate stakeholders in occupational health and safety is really a matter of listening, being open to and dealing with employees as equal partners in developing and implementing programs.

The greatest error in trying to create a safety culture is leaving everything in the hands of health and safety professionals, says Intelex Vice President and Global Practice Leader for Safety and Health Scott Gaddis. If you want to limit loss and drive performance, the entire workforce needs to be involved.

Employees as stakeholders of occupational health and safety should be tasked to step into safety leadership roles and responsibilities throughout an organization. It’s an approach Gaddis took earlier in his career while working as the global safety and health leader at Kimberley-Clark.

Relationship Building Is Key

As a “staff of one,” Gaddis says he was only going to be as good as his ability to build relationships throughout the organization. To that end, he began meeting with various working crews in a search for those interested in enhancing their safety skills and job qualifications. He sought “champions” for different roles and tasks.

As part of their condition of employment, workers at Kimberley-Clark’s production facility needed to embrace two champion areas as a prerequisite to advancing their careers. One champion area focused on job specialization and the other required deeper learning about aspects of health and safety.

“If you were a champion of paper manufacturing, that was your first priority,” Gaddis says. “Your second champion area was to work with me on safety and health. I initially (worked with) 35 people and we broke them down into crews.

“I would meet with those people, train them and build their knowledge. I would teach them things like lockout/tagout, confined space, how to drive a fork truck, how to inspect the fork truck – everything I knew. I was transferring that knowledge to them and trying to build mini versions of myself.”

Someone might be designated as the machine-guarding expert or champion on a work crew and would refine and develop their health and safety skills to perform inspections on that equipment. Eventually, most employees in a facility of more than 500 people were clamoring to become champions in various aspects of health and safety. 

“I was trying to just keep skin in the game and wanted them to be a part of this,” Gaddis says, explaining it was challenging to instruct so many people on safety skills. But the effort was vital in creating a strong a safety culture and encouraging employees as stakeholders in health and safety.

“Everybody was able to take accountability. That facility was the best one at Kimberly Clark… and it’s just been perking along for the last 30 years now.”

Labor/Management Relations and Relationship to Safety Stakeholders

The success of health and safety programs and willingness of employees to become stakeholders might also depend on labor/management relations and how comfortable workers feel about raising health and safety concerns, says Jordan Barab, a former director of health and safety for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and former deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

“If you have a situation where (employees) are not listened to or, even worse, managers are disciplining or retaliating against them for raising issues, then obviously you’ve got a problem bigger than any health and safety expert is going to be able to address,” he says. “So, it’s necessary for health and safety professionals to understand the power relationships in the workplace and to listen to workers.”

In workplaces where a collective bargaining agreement exists, contract language sets the parameters and rules each side must follow regarding health and safety and dictates any stewardship that an employee might assume. But organizational leadership must also earn the trust of employees, Barab says, adding, “Good employers are sincerely interested in working with their employees as partners and listening to them.”

Still, power relationships can sometimes inhibit or put a roadblock in the way of an employee’s ability to step up as a stakeholder in health and safety.

“If a worker is not listened to regarding a health and safety concern, then that’s obviously going to have kind of a chilling effect on the labor/management relationship when it comes to health and safety,” Barab says. “You need to deal with the labor/management issues and the power relationships in the workplace before you can actually fix health and safety problems.”

Barab admits getting the attention of company leadership sometimes requires filing workplace safety complaints with OSHA. 

“We didn’t have many strikes over health and safety issues, but by using some kind of labor action – by going to the press or whatever – we could put pressure on them,” he says.

Encouraging employees to be legitimate stakeholders in occupational health and safety is really a matter of listening, being open to and dealing with employees as equal partners in developing and implementing programs, Barab says.

“I think that the more you have unions and the stronger the unions are, the more likely you are to have better health and safety conditions as well.”

Learn more about what you can do to drive greater ownership and a stronger health and safety culture within your organization by downloading the Intelex Insight Report: Occupational Health and Safety: Employees as Stakeholders.

Looking for technology-based solutions to help your employees step up as stakeholders in health and safety? Intelex’s EHS software tracks and reports your safety data, analyzes trends and draws insights, meets compliance requirements and cuts down administrative work.

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