Through applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to an occupational setting, a needs based safety equivalent can be contrived. At the base of the pyramid is the primal need that is filled through having gainful employment. The next tier up is one of safety. The safety portion of the pyramid is based on creating the fundamental feeling that someone can come to a place of work and be able to return home at the end a shift in relatively the same condition and they arrived (tired from a day of work but uninjured). Creating a safe environment is fundamentally the responsibility of the employer. This was the whole reason the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created. OSHA is in place to assure that the employer provides a basic safe working environment. It was not created to assure that the employee worked safe, but with any system that involved people there is always a choice.

First, I want to say that employee safety committees are very important, but looking at the situation through a “needs based” set of metrics shows that basic safety programs have to be in place first. It is interesting to come into a situation where safety performance is poor and those who have watched the programs (and usually safety managers) come and go will push for an immediate safety committee. Usually, this statement of absolute knowledge is followed with the statement that each time a safety committee is started there is a lack of employee interest and the committees disband. Why does this happen? The committees fail because the basic need of safety has not been met. Those in the work place cannot graduate to the team based (esteem) need because they do not feel personally safe and perceive that the company is not providing a safe environment.

What could be the reasons for the safety need not being fulfilled?

First, the site should review if there is truly a safe workplace. Are there glaring safety issues that have gone unabated such as guarding, chemical, or procedural problems? This would be a clear case of the employees’ inability to move on to the next behavioral phase due to a lack of fulfillment in the current one. Most likely though, there are some other underlying issues that are present that have not been addressed. One method to find the cause of the behavioral issue would be to conduct a series of employee surveys or interviews. The survey would include “agree or disagree” questions such as:

  • I feel management is committed safety
  • I feel safety concerns are addressed in a timely manner
  • I feel like safety concerns are taken seriously
  • I feel comfortable talking about safety issues with my supervisor
  • I believe the company wants me to be safe
  • Safety is the most important task I perform

The information provided from the survey would give a good overview of the site’s generalized feeling about safety. The survey would indicate a potential area of the safety process that needs to be further developed. The results of the survey could lead to a stronger focus on timely performance of maintenance safety work orders or allow for more supervisor training on engaging employees and mitigating safety hazards. When it comes to people, especially groups, perception is reality.

The good news is that perceptions can be changed. The goal is to make the change as simple as possible. Some examples of utilizing small changes to make large impacts would be:

  • Publicizing the safety work order metrics
  • Performing visible management safety audits
  • Posting before and after photos of safety corrections
  • Training the management team and supervisors to make a personal contact with employees through the day to simply thank them for working safe.

Here is the bottom line for the safety need:

  • The company is responsible for providing a safe workplace.
  • Review/Create programs for compliance
  • Assure that the programs are being utilized
  • Make sure that training is clear, up-to-date, and reflects the work place
  • When safety deficiencies are found, correct them with urgency or communicate the plan for longer projects.
  • Communicate, communicate communicate. The goal is to change the perception of the safety programs. Show progress where progress has made. Use small changes as a springboard for large scale change*
  • Listen to the feedback coming from the employees. If they perceive something as a problem, there might be one.

*For more on making big changes, I highly recommend “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard”