Safety Cultures and the Impact of Political Agendas

Image by Jonathon Warner: flickr.com/photos/calignosus/

Recent trends in American politics have left many of us in the EHS/Risk Management field deeply concerned. Intensely polarized camps of voters inhabit our workplaces and their political leanings may diametrically oppose the safety cultures in organizations. This is particularly true in the Rust Belt, where governmental regulations may be despised and viewed as outdated by many employees — AKA the far reach of government into citizens’ lives, by protecting workers from dying on the job.

Heaven save us from desiring that employees go home intact and alive each night. Like many of you, my entire career has been spent preventing loss of limb and life and protecting workers from injury. Bad me.

While employee attitude is always a factor in safety cultures, today it is more critical for EHS and employers to understand the impacts on the workplace. How is employee attitude shaped? Employees aren’t blank stamps. They come to us with a rich and diverse personal and professional history, individual personalities and values. Together, the blend of all your workers — plus organizational mindset — create a society or culture.

If we accept the definition that a safety culture is the attitude, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety in the workplace, then we must also accept that some of those shared cultural attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values include those shaped by external forces, such as political leanings. Negative attitudes toward safety laws can poison the entire organization. At worst, people can die or become seriously injured.

Even if you’re fortunate not to have significant or frequent injuries, it doesn’t necessary mean your employees are acting safely. Smoldering underneath the surface can be a pervasive distrust or hatred for compliance if employees view occupational safety and health as part of “Big Brother Government.” That can represent a ticking time bomb for a serious event.

It doesn’t help when videos such as this widely shared one, begins with a pointed barb against health and safety. “Health and safety, which is a small oppression of our movements, so we can’t do anything without permission from the State,” says the comedian, Steve Hughes. Years ago, I might have chuckled over that, because people didn’t really embrace that mindset, did they? Surely the laws written in response to the deaths of thousands of workers aren’t discounted. Likewise, I’m sure Mr. Hughes (an excellent comedian) meant this in fun. But now, I no longer find the humor at these jibes, because a whole movement has sprung up that truly believes the world is better without intrusive government entities and regulations, including those laws that protect workers on the job.

It’s all fun and games until someone dies.

This is not an isolated example. This is a mentality that is widely incorporated into anti-regulatory/anti-big government conservative voting patterns. To be sure, there have always been those who have balked at the need for safety on the job, but the current government administration and biased websites with mass followings, have created a force that we must recognize and contend with daily in our safety cultures.

After all, to comply with the best sources in government (and by extension the employer) makes one a sheeple. All that some workers claim they need is common sense. Forget those nasty regulations or branches of government out to take away their liberties. The stupid die, while the smart survives. It’s survival of the fittest on the job. Darwinism at work.

“Safety gets in the way of productivity,” is another widely held belief, implying that safety objectives are detrimental to capitalism.When, in fact, countless studies show the exact opposite.

Safety is productivity in action.

Employers, regardless of personal political views, see accidents and injuries affecting their bottom line, company reputation and workers’ compensation costs. And most employers view protecting workers as an ethical responsibility, as my clients do. But alas, this doesn’t always transcend to worker behavior or attitude.

Especially now.

Your workers might be reading such gems which refer to OSHA officials as “thugs” and others which portray OSHA as part of a mass government agency intimidation cartel. (For a factual and paranoid-free view on that latter story, see here for citation details.) Other articles on the same site discuss inflammatory alleged “failures” of OSHA and claim the agency is anti-capitalist and creating fodder for media hype, or focus on (and mock) the work of OSHA on PPE and condoms for the adult entertainment industry, as if to call attention to tax dollars being spent in an allegedly narrow and irrelevant manner, rather than discuss the success of OSHA and the thousands of lives saved by compliance.

Note: These type of jabs and inflammatory articles on that particular site have been ongoing, dating back at least seven years. That’s seven potential years of bias, you’ll need to overcome in your safety culture.

Anyone in the EHS industry knows that OSHA is a highly productive entity. Indeed, they are a small agency with a big mission. Groundbreaking rules in bloodborne pathogens, vinyl chloride, coke oven emissions, cotton dust, lead, benzene, dibromochloropropane, arsenic, acrylonitrile, noise, and hazard focus in areas such as poultry processing, temporary workers and powered industrial trucks have protected employees’ health and safety, while reducing the fatalities from 14,000 per year in the decade of the 1960’s, to 4,836 in 2015, with overall significantly declining figures in the forty plus years of OSHA’s history.

But if employees’ safety and health perceptions are shaped by memes, comedic videos, inflammatory or fake news sources, it is easy to connect the dots between these views and antagonism or resentment when asked to comply on the job.

Clearly not all workers who vote a certain way ascribe to these views, but the potential is definitely there. And EHS and employers must realize this. I believe it’s a costly mistake if you don’t.

Adding to the threat to your safety culture are agendas in the current administration to remove “unnecessary regulations” and defund or abolish organizations such as the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). The CSB is absolutely critical to understand serious workplace hazards and prevent fatal or catastrophic events. Even the mere suggestion to defund an organization such as the CSB, shows how prevalent the mission to denigrate safety on the job has become in our current society.

Yes, some of our safety regulations and policies are based on common sense, but many aren’t. Workers or EHS cannot intuitively and through common sense discern many hazardous conditions or prevention of these hazards without scientific data and in turn, regulations (PELs) and company compliance to support these findings.

For example:

  • How much hexavalent chromium exposure puts an employee at risk? What levels of exposure do your workers have? How shall we protect them?
  • Do your workers have exposure to benzene? What are the risks and how do we protect employees?
  • What are the threats to an employee’s health when welding? How is this determined on a company level?
  • How much noise can a worker experience without hearing loss? What is the noise level for certain jobs/departments in your organization?
  • What disease risks are prevalent in the population and what should be done on the job to prevent transmission?
  • How do workers avoid musculoskeletal disorders in your organization?
  • What is combustible dust and what are the threats to your organization? How do you select appropriate engineering controls?
  • What chemical and physical threats are possible in confined spaces and how do we identify these? What methods do you use to protect workers?
  • Which chemicals are sensitizers and how can these affect your workforce?
  • What is safest way to store VOCs, flammable gases, and acids?
  • What are the risks of ignition sources, such as static electricity, and how do we work safety in these environments?

Not a one of these can be fully answered by common sense alone. This is where company training, and policies and programs based on standards, empirical evidence, scientific data applications, industrial hygiene surveys and workplace evaluations fill the gaps in and protect workers.

And further, associated laws pertaining to the above, as well as OSHA’s General Duty Clause, also have requirements to ensure employers adhere, because mere wishful thinking that everyone works together to avoid safety hazards has been shown to be a false model, leading to thousands of worker deaths and millions disabled in the past. There was no collective Kumbaya moment prior to OSHA, where we all held hands, applied goodwill and common sense and made the workplace safer.

Never mind statistics on the success of safety cultures and the impact on ROI which are plentiful. This article focuses on identifying the problem. Awareness is critical. You might be beating your head against the wall trying to implement a robust safety program, with little fruit.

Consider the perceptions, behavior and attitude of workers:

  1. Resistance: Employees lack engagement and show resignation or outright hostility to attend or participate in training or safety programs.
  2. Refusal: Employees will not embrace or follow company safety rules, especially when no one is looking. Chronic accidents, near misses or failure to report these events occur. Risk taking is common.
  3. Distrust: Safety culture and associated regulations are thought to be a means of government intrusion. Fear rules the behavior.
  4. Poor leadership: Failure to lead or set positive safety examples: Every man (or woman) for himself/herself. Do as I say, not as I do. Darwinism.

Due to company dynamics, individual employee personalities and a host of other possibilities — bad attitudes can be present without external cultural influence. But I believe these are incredibly exacerbated by the current trends in politics.

In short — to offset the external and internal factors affecting your safety program, EHS must be even more aware of possible implications of our political culture impacting performance on the job.The answer isn’t just keeping a lid on the discussions of politics and candidates at the company, it’s re-framing employee thoughts, perceptions and values to align with corporate safety, and claiming safety as a personal and valued objective by each member of the organization from the top down.

These safety and health requirements aren’t an imposition on citizens’ liberty. Rather, they demonstrate and add value to the worker’s life. And frankly, the best examples of vibrant safety cultures in the nation are organizations who exceed the requirements and standards.

After all, the standards are our foundation to build a wholesome workplace environment.

And currently that foundation is threatened.

Now, more than ever, EHS must clarify the purpose of the safety program.

And today that represents a monumental challenge. If EHS read industry news and hazard alerts and attend safety conferences, but our employees are embracing memes and fake news aimed at reducing safety, and we don’t recognize this — we’ll never move forward. To change the culture — one must understand the culture. And then we must offset the negatives and the false with positives and facts.

To this end, I highly recommend education for all members of the organization on pre/post OSHA, and regular information on success of safety regulations or case studies of companies with excellent safety programs. Personally, I incorporate this into almost all training sessions. A snippet during training demonstrating how the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard reduced occupational transmission of Hepatitis B from 8,700 cases to 800 (a mere four years after the law was fully enacted), a bit about the decline in workplace injuries overall, etc.

Sometime ago, I’d written about this on my company blog, but it bears new and keen awareness today.

Safety on the job isn’t a left or right agenda. It’s a non-partisan issue.

We don’t want workers dying or getting injured. Period. And that crosses party lines. But to craft a healthy safety culture, it’s likely you’ll have to do be savvy about false ideas in the workforce which are products of poison politics.

We must reverse the tragic misconception that worker safety and health is a partisan or liberal agenda. As long as some workers view it that way, they’ll grudgingly (at best) comply and your safety program will falter or utterly stall.

This is the first of a four-part series on this topic. In the forthcoming articles, we’ll discuss implications to your bottom line, and the company hazards associated with failing safety cultures, as well as methods to re-brand your safety program to be robust and engaging. We’ll address the impacts of behavioral psychology, and programs and training methods to engage even the most safety-resistant workers.

Join me.

Writings of a solivagant, gypsy soul, foodie, and pirate hopeful. Unconventional mother. Sometimes profane. Occasionally profound.

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