Why Employee Involvement May Not Be Enough

By Topf, Michael D. | Occupational Hazards, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Why Employee Involvement May Not Be Enough


Topf, Michael D., Occupational Hazards


For lasting improvement, employees must "own" the safety and health process.

The highest praise one can bestow on a successful safety and health process these days is that it has a strong employee involvement component. Asked for evidence, a safety manager in charge might point to employee participation on a safety committee, employees conducting job safety analyses, audits or observations, people's willingness to take responsibility and intervene with anyone regardless of their position, or the valuable ideas submitted to an employee safety suggestion program. There's no question that these activities are excellent measures of involvement. But is involvement enough? I believe not, if the goal is lasting improvement to safety, health and the environment.

A more significant measure of a process or program's worth is employee ownership, a combination of activities and indices that suggest a higher level of commitment by the employer and the employed. What that condition is and how to achieve it are the subjects of this column.

What Does It Look Like?

To discuss employee ownership, it's first necessary to define it, which is best accomplished by describing how the condition "looks" at a place of employment. The first characteristic is universality -- employee ownership means participation by employees at every level. When used as part of the term employee ownership, "employee" does not refer uniquely to line or hourly workers, but to everyone involved in the organization at every level and in every department.

One can "see" ownership in action when employees refer to the safety process in daily conversation, safety jargon or common terms of reference are frequently used and its influence begins to be felt in off-the-job behaviors. It's evident in a willingness to participate in activities that support the learnings of the process, continual improvement activities and employees' desire to reinforce, support and correct one another. In addition, it can be detected when contractors and other visitors to a manufacturing plant are routinely reminded by any employee that they, too, must follow safe work practices when on site and when their failure to do so is immediately corrected.

What Does It Require?

For any safety, health and environmental improvement process to become self-sustaining and successful, it needs to become a seamless part of the culture of an organization. This is doubly true if the desired end result is employee ownership. To that end, the process and its benefits must be seen as having value for the employees, their families and others in the company.

All of us operate out of a variety of motivations. We may comply with a safety protocol, for example, because it's required, which safety should and must be. We might also take action because we are compelled to do so out of a fear of retribution. Or we may act because the value and benefit of the action -- locking out a piece of machinery, for example -- is internalized and understood. The chance that employees will come to own the safety process grows dramatically when those involved believe that the decisions they make have immediate and long-term value. "It's my eyes, back and hands. I want to keep them for me and my family."

Another essential condition for employee ownership is personal responsibility. Employees will take ownership only when they realize and accept that they are responsible for themselves, their co-workers, families, friends and community. When we work with companies to implement a process to replace unsafe attitudes and behaviors with safe ones, we typically start with an in-depth assessment. It asks, among other questions, who employees view as responsible for their safety. …

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