We’re incredibly excited to announce Dr. Judy Agnew, Senior Vice President of Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International as one of our featured speakers at NXT 2017: The Future of EHS.
Judy is a recognized thought leader in the field of behavior-based safety, safety leadership and performance management and the author of three acclaimed safety books: A Supervisor’s Guide to Safety Leadership, Safe by Accident? Take the Luck out of Safety: Leadership Practices that Build a Sustainable Safety Culture and Removing Obstacles to Safety.
With over 25 years of experience working with clients to create behavior-based safety interventions that ensure organizations are safe by design, there’s no one more well versed in worker participation than Judy Agnew. And after you catch her session at NXT, Participation-Based Safety: The NXT Frontier, we guarantee you’ll come away rethinking your approach to safety management.
We recently caught up with Dr. Judy Agnew to talk a bit about safety culture and participation-based safety, an emerging approach to EHS management.
3 Questions with Dr. Judy Agnew on Driving Safety Participation
eCompliance: Are you seeing more importance placed upon safety participation now than in the past? If so, why do you think this is the case?
Judy Agnew: Safety is completely different now from when I started in this field 25 years ago. When I first started consulting, there were many companies across industries with very high incident rates. Looking back on it now, it’s astounding. But at the time, these companies weren’t doing some things that are considered very basic today. They didn’t have hazard identification processes. They didn’t have good work order systems. They lacked the fundamental safety practices that nearly everyone does today.
In recent years, I’ve spoken to so many safety professionals who tell me, ‘my company has done a great job: our safety performance has improved dramatically over the past 5-10 years, but we’ve plateaued‘. I hear this so often because these EHS professionals have done everything they know how to do, and they’ve seen good results, but they’re still not where they want to be.
I think safety culture, behavior and worker participation has become the new focus because that’s where the opportunity is. It’s the next frontier that leaders see as the biggest opportunity for driving safety improvement.
eCompliance: What motivates workers to participate in safety activities?
Judy Agnew: At the frontline, there are many things that are important to motivate workers to participate more in safety. The number one thing is their experience around safety from a consequence perspective. I’ll share a story to illustrate this: when we do assessment work, we go out and talk to workers at all levels of the organization, but when we talk to frontline workers, one of the things we often hear is, ‘the only time I ever hear from my boss about safety is when I’ve done something wrong.’ So the sentiment among many frontline workers is: I get nothing but negative around safety so why would I want to participate more? Why would I raise my hand and say ‘I want to do more of this’ when it’s a negative experience for me?
The most effective way to motivate employees to participate more is to use positive reinforcement. Acknowledge the things workers are doing well. I always tell safety leaders, workers are doing things safely at least 90% of the time, or else they wouldn’t be working for you. The majority of the time, our employees are deserving of some recognition, and yet we still focus much of our effort on the very small proportion of time they’re not doing it right.
Secondly, we need to ask our employees for their opinion. A lot of the time, frontline workers are not used to being asked for their thoughts. Many of them just believe they’re there to do a job, do what they’re told and keep their head down. You have to counter this and say, ‘we want to hear what you think. We want you to tell us what’s going on. We want you to participate more.’ When workers do participate, there must be some positive reinforcement for doing so. The classic suggestion box where people put in suggestions and never hear about them again is the kiss of death. If you want people to participate and then either ignore them when they do participate or worse – criticize them or in some way punish the very participation you’ve asked for, you’re going to get less of it.
eCompliance: What advice would you give to organizations looking to build safety cultures that foster participation?
Judy Agnew: The most important thing is to encourage the use of more positive reinforcement. This concept sounds overly simplistic, but it’s not easy to do. I would recommend that safety professionals start by going to their leadership teams and asking them what they want to see improved in terms of employee behavior and participation – ask them for two specific behaviors. Then, when they tell you the two behaviors they want improved, suggest that whenever the leaders see those two behaviors they go out and say something positive to the workers about what they’ve observed. Stop and talk to them, ask them how they figured out how to do those things safely. Encourage leaders to gradually start doing more of that. Nobody’s going to make a dramatic shift in how they lead and manage overnight. It’s got to be gradual. Give them manageable, easy-to-do steps towards making that improvement.
I think that EHS professionals need to do more of this as well. If you’ve typically been an enforcer, my suggestion would be to go out and spend two weeks in the field using more positive reinforcement. Then, start asking for participation in very specific ways. Go up to workers and ask for their input on a particular item or ask for their insight during a safety meeting. Make it easy for your people to participate and then reinforce that participation.