Implementing a Workplace Health & Safety Program

As with any plan of action, a workplace health & safety program will only be as good as the elements that comprise it and how well the program is adopted. There are other elements necessary to help make an EHS or H&S program successful. Refer to earlier posts for more information. Here, I’ll present a recent situation that will help illustrate the necessity of not only an effective and understandable written plan, but also careful selection of the professionals that will help to administer the plan.

I was recently asked which sort of method I would use to implement a workplace health and safety plan: by a so-called “push down” method or by a “pull up” method. Once I understood the labels, the answer was clear: the pull-up method.  Push down apparently means perhaps great written elements and even excellent training programs.  But it seems to end there as if to say:“We have all the necessary aspects in place to make the program work (such as training and written elements), so just follow the plan.” On the other hand, the “pull up” method means to provide consistent support and mentoring. Helping those empowered to adopt the plan should center on assistance and ensuring comprehension. It is an on-going process and cycle of improvement as opposed to the mindset that all you really need is a written program that will sort of then self-administer.

Here’s an analogy: People understand that operation of a motor vehicle on public roads requires that the occupants wear seat belts. Using the seat belt example, that means getting a ticket if you have not buckled up. The push down message is that this is the law and you must comply. But people don’t, do they? Why? Well for starters because in the real world, the law does not equally and effectively change human behavior. We rely on laws to modify behavior but they often rely on negative consequences as a means of behavior modification On the other hand, behavior-based safety is all about cultural and individual change; getting people on board, and getting buy-in and acceptance. That takes time and numbers.

A pull-up safety program relies on mentoring and example to increase buy-in – methods of positive reinforcement. For example if there is a car full of people expecting the driver to head off with them inside but not bucked in (one or all), a pull-up method might be for the driver (or any other occupant) to simply say that until everyone is buckled in, the key does not go into the ignition. That is to say: “Not buckled in? Fine then everyone walks”. That’s a simple and effective reminder about the need for compliance. The goal is to make compliance both convenient and the norm; to get to the point where individual behavior meets desired outcome.

In a group, there may be an element of peer-pressure at play. But so long as it is tipped in favor of desired outcome, that is a good thing. There is a tipping point at which desired outcome becomes more certain. The group should have a notable number of individuals who already exhibit desired behaviors. The greater the percentage of the group that is comprised of individuals who already engage in desired behavior, the greater the chance is that as a whole the group will conform and have the lowest potential for non-compliance. While there are a slew of other variables, in essence this formula does work. Change the behavior of individuals and they in turn can influence the group. The evidence shows us that positive reinforcement is a better way to go and will help to ensure compliance regardless of the degree of enforcement. While my “buckle-up” example may suggest negative reinforcement, actually it isn’t; the reward for desired behavior is that we all get to our destination by car. If we don’t buckle up, we all walk. But desired behaviors which should be seen as normal traits that typically would not then be rewarded. When a decision and therefore an action (such as buckling a seat belt) becomes the norm, it is not exceptional behavior; it is an integral part of the job.

So on the point of trying to push down a safety program rather than use the pull up method, it should be clear which will be more effective. More than that, it begs the question of who would decide to administer a program by patently less effective means and not know the difference until faced with failures and telling metrics. In future post, I’ll explore in more detail the clear necessity of having competent and effective leadership in the EHS realm. Company leadership sometimes does not have a clear picture of the function of an EHS role and therefore does not know what to expect or what they should expect. Far too often people segue into the role maybe just because they have expressed an interest in job safety. Well, I’m interested in airplanes but that does not make me a pilot. And not all pilots are equally good. So who would you rather have fly the plane, and how would you assess their competence? More on this in a future post.

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