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September 05, 2006
Empower Employees for Safety

Do employees have a role in safety rules? In the old-style model for safety programs, top management made and enforced safety rules (based largely on OSHA requirements), and employees were expected to follow the rules. A simple, straightforward system--but not one that did much to encourage teamwork, cooperation, or a sense of individual responsibility for safety. Today, many organizations recognize the importance of employees "buying in" to the safety program. It's no longer enough for employees just to follow the rules; they should feel that they are an integral part of the program, with a meaningful role in identifying potential safety problems and actually improving safety.

Is "empowerment" a buzzword or a reality? "Empowerment" is a popular human resources term, but it can be meaningless without a real commitment to back it up. HR expert Susan Heathfield has identified five reasons that so-called "employee empowerment" efforts fail:

  1. No commitment or support--saying you want to "empower employees," but not really meaning it.
  2. Misunderstanding what "empowerment" means--believing it means "having input," when it really means having the ability to make decisions that bring about change.
  3. Lack of clarity--not letting employees know what the boundaries are: what they have and do not have the authority to change.
  4. Micromanagement--allowing employees to make decisions, but then requiring that each decision be approved by a higher authority.
  5. Second-guessing--allowing employees to make decisions, but then criticizing them or making further changes to "improve" the results.

Give employees the power to be safer.

Why It Matters...
  • According to OSHA, safety programs that include employee empowerment and accountability have reduced injury rates by as much as 90 percent.
  • Safety experts say the idea that safety is simply a matter of writing rules and policies is one of the leading myths about how to create a safer workplace.
  • Experts also say that the best programs are those in which everyone feels responsible for safety.

Keeping in mind the above list of ways to take the "power" out of "empowerment," try to identify opportunities to introduce meaningful ways for employees to create safer environments for themselves and their co-workers. Possible ideas include:

  • Implement a formal "safety suggestion" system, by which employees may report potential hazards and suggest corrective action. (Make sure that all such suggestions are responded to.)
  • Assign employee safety teams the responsibility for identifying and correcting hazards in specific areas.(Let their corrective actions stand, even if you think they could still be improved.)
  • Publicly acknowledge and applaud good safety suggestions and any actions taken by employees to identify hazards and improve safety.
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