The Hierarchy of Safety Needs. Part 2: The Safety Need

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”

The Hierarchy of Safety Needs: Part 1

One of the more fascinating theories that I enjoy thinking about in relationship to safety is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

I realize that I just cited Wikipedia, but it does give a good overview of the process. So, I’m going to let that one ride.

Basically, Maslow says there is a pyramid of needs and that until someone fulfills the bottom most need, they cannot progress to the next one. Once that one is also filled, one could progress to the next one in line until an individual reaches the top.

The bottom most tier is the basic/primal needs where the higher-level ones are more advanced.

To Summarize the needs:

Physiological: Primal needs such as eating, sleeping, clothing, shelter

Safety: Personal, financial, etc. What makes someone feel secure in their element

Love: Family & Friends

Esteem: Self-esteem

Self Actualization: The highest progression of needs. Self awareness.

In other words: one cannot feel safe until their basic needs are met. One cannot love until they feel safe, etc. etc.

My thoughts on this theory: Can it be applied to occupational safety? Are there needs in the workplace that are or are not being met that create unnecessary risk taking that could lead to an injury? How are those needs fulfilled?

This theory of needs is a  way of looking at a workplace and the people in it to see where they are on the needs scale and possibly predict their attitude or aptitude toward safety. The idea of needs based safety could be the basic root cause of unsafe behaviors in the workplace.

So, what are the hierarchy of safety needs?

Physiological: Inherent to the theory. If you are concerned about workplace safety, then the job itself is providing this need through employment.

Safety: This is the company’s commitment to safety through policies, procedures, investments, and accountability

Love: Love for self and concern for personal safety

Esteem: Concern for not only one’s self, but the team

Self Actualization: Where the team is empowered to make safety their own and progress the programs and processes through continuous improvement.

There is an element of social contact interwoven to this process. The company has an inherent responsibility to provide a safe workplace, and the employees have the responsibility to follow those programs. Based on the needs, though, the company has to make the first move to meet that need of safety through their safety programs and processes.

In my next entry, I will go into more detail on the “safety” portion of the needs pyramid.

Why “TheSafetyDude”?

Many times people wonder how or why I settled on the moniker “TheSafetyDude.” It all started with my first true safety job. I was still fresh into the safety field and not sure if I would stay with it or try to find to find a job using my major rather than my minor. As in typical safety dude fashion, it was a pseudo-turnaround. Performance was not where it should be, and I was there to hopefully help improve the safety programs. Whether I knew it or not, this was a preview to where most of my career would take me (startups and turnarounds).

This was the early phase of my career where I did not really know how I wanted to manage being a safety professional. So, I had to learn by trial and error what would work and would not work. My early approach was to play the role of safety cop. I went around finding everything wrong and reporting about it publically. Looking back, this worked just as would now expect. It put some good supervisors in some bad places. It made it look like the front line supervisors were not managing the safety side of their business. One of the more outspoken of those supervisors coined the term safety dude.

“What’s up safety dude?”

“What are you going to find tonight, safety dude?”

“Do you think we need to install seat belts on the office chairs, safety dude?”

This bothered me fundamentally because I knew my process was ineffective in either making safety better or helping to education others in how to manage safety. Instead of making these comments into a moment to pick a fight, I used the opportunity to see where I was failing. I started working side-by-side with this supervisor. I would go to his pre-shift meetings and simply listen. I would talk to his team and understand their needs and obstacles. I started to see where I could use safety as an integrated benefit to his department. If they needed better PPE, I would try to find it. If they needed forklift training, I would provide it when they needed it. If they had a concern, I would be that voice to champion it. Instead of “safety dude” being a mocking term, it took on a tone of respectful camaraderie.

“Safety dude, come look at this issue.”

“Hey safety dude, let’s figure out how to fix this”

“What training can I provide to better help my team, safety dude?”

I have kept that nickname since as it reminds me of how I had to learn the hard way the right way to manage safety.