Charting a Safer Future

No successful journey begins with someone blindly setting out without a plan, a goal, or proper gear. Even organizations, like special districts for example, need to have those things established before embarking on any kind of a quest. For organizations, the quality of a plan and the strength of their gear is always tied closely to the group’s core values.

Every organization has core values, whether they focus on spurring competition or collaboration. A district’s values, while integral, only serve as guideposts set for employees to follow. A working culture arises from the daily interactions that take place within that culture between employees at every level. This happens over time and continues to evolve as an organization grows or changes. It is important that management incorporate a focus on safety into that culture, regardless of how old or evolved that culture has become.

This is especially true for public entities like waterworks, park and recreation agencies, or fire departments. These organizations are often viewed as the gold standard in safety and responsibility. Communities place their lives in both, relying on them for safe drinking water, a safe place to play, and peace of mind when it comes to fires and emergencies. Therefore, it is vital that their cultures appropriately reflect the importance of safety in order to avoid serious safety incidents that could demoralize the culture both inside and outside of the district. If your mission is to provide a safe service or product to your community, doesn’t it stand to reason that this must also be accomplished safely?

You might be reading this article and agree with all that, but still have no idea how to start moving your workplace culture toward one that doesn’t simply ignore the risks of serious injury. Just like any other journey, you start by identifying where you would like to end up. So to that end, ask yourself this: Where would you like to see your workplace five years from now? Once your target is identified you can begin mapping out waypoints by setting short, medium, and long-term goals. These should be measurable benchmarks that can be tracked and will allow you to identify whether the district is progressing on schedule.

While you may or may not be in a position to plan something like this, you won’t be traveling this road alone. Engaging your entire team can often times be a challenge, but roping in others also adds tremendous strength to your efforts. Break the process down by delegating specific tasks to different groups or individuals. The process of including a wider taskforce may also provide you with feedback vital to your success.

If you, as a manager or leader, have never asked your staff for the types of hazards and perils they face in their daily tasks, how can your team properly prepare for them? Even if you once performed those duties, the perils at the job sites may have changed over time as equipment aged or processes evolved. This also means that the feedback of your workers, no matter what they say, must come without the possibility of reprisals. Ignoring for a moment, the fact that this kind of retaliation is completely illegal, you need honest feedback and that may not be forthcoming if your employees feel that they will be penalized for voicing their concerns.

Having that type of open and constructive dialogue ensures true employee engagement at all levels. The benefit of which is clear: everyone is following the same roadmap to success, from the managers and board members to entry-level workers. At a district like that every employee will feel empowered to challenge and correct a hazardous condition on sight. This sets the right example for your employees to follow. Safety is contagious and the more employees you have working safely, the more that will follow them.

Think back to your ultimate goal. Think about what behaviors you would see compared with those you see now. The kind of cooperative environment that reduces safety risks is one in which everyone is looking out for one another. A safety culture like that doesn’t necessarily mean that incidents won’t happen at all, but it does mean that your district will learn from those incidents and has the opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

If you don’t already have a safety committee in place, you should definitely consider bringing one together. Ideally, your committee would be comprised of representatives from each department within your district. Larger districts may even consider multiple committees—such as one per location—that report information to a central safety committee at the main office. Not only does this provide equal opportunity for every working group to voice their concerns and contribute to the organization’s safety culture, it also lends your district improved accountability from all areas and levels with different points of view.

Some questions to explore include:

  1. What types of hazards have been ignored in the past?
  2. Can we learn anything from our past claims or injuries?
  3. Who will carry what responsibilities?

That last question presents a good opportunity to apply these ideas to other areas of your operations. For example, every position at your district has a description detailing its respective job duties. Consider including safety responsibilities and roles alongside an employees’ primary duties. Just like the common phrase “Other duties as assigned”, consider adding a similar catchall to include safety related tasks such as calling out hazards on a worksite or reporting unsafe behaviors when witnessed. The philosophy should be that everyone has a role within their organization to contribute to a safer work environment. An entry-level employee could be tasked with cleaning their work area throughout the day, helping coworkers when needed, or mandated with reporting or resolving unsafe conditions they observe.

New employees are particularly prone to injury due to their unfamiliarity with new working conditions so getting their buy-in is critical. This may mean insuring that a quick overview of the district’s safety policies and culture are a part of every new employee orientation. It could also mean that supervisors provide extra oversight of new hires until such time has passed that these increased risks have diminished.

Moving up the ladder, even board members have the responsibility to hold the district accountable for what they are doing for the community, and by holding the managers accountable for maintaining a safe work environment. This is part of a board member’s mandate from their constituents, and an important part of their commitment to the people in their employ.

Creating a safety culture does not mean establishing a set of rules and just leaving it at that. Jeff Cooper, famous US Marine, said “Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.” Rules must be enforced and constantly challenged in order to make sure that they are effective and appropriate. No new safety device or gadget can take the place of a quality safety culture.

It takes constant effort and vigilance to prevent incidents large and small. This can actually save lives. Everyone who works in your organization has a role to play, so make sure every employee, manager, board member, and even volunteers have been informed about their responsibilities to the district and to each other. Once you have identified where you are and where you want to go, you can put your strategy together and get started leading your district toward a safer future where everyone goes home safely every night.

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