To increase buy-in, designate employee safety advocates

By: Travis Rhoden

Publication: Workplace Safety Regulatory Alert

Date Posted: 04/23/2020

Getting employees to support safety, or even just follow your written procedures, can be a challenge. Supervisor support and reinforcement is critical because they’re the day-to-day contact for employees. As a safety professional, you can’t reinforce safety with every employee every day.

One option could increase compliance while also help to alleviate the burden on supervisors. It involves identifying at least one employee in each team or department to serve as a safety advocate.

Even supervisors who fully support safety need to create time for including that obligation among their other duties. As a result, safety may not be something they devote time to every day.

Creating a program that identifies individual employees to serve as safety advocates, who promote compliance among their peers, could provide much-needed assistance and backup for a busy supervisor. In addition, other workers in the department may be more willing to listen to feedback from a coworker, since the reinforcement won’t seem like an authoritarian demand from management.

Identifying candidates for safety advocate program

You’ll need volunteers for a safety advocate program, since the participants should willingly support all safety efforts. However, supervisors should help identify likely individuals, based on performance and particularly seeking individuals who have the respect of their coworkers. Potential candidates might include individuals who:

  • Know someone (friend, family member, coworker) who was injured at work and would like to help others avoid that fate; or
  • Have a personal story regarding safety, whether they were injured or experienced a frightening near-miss incident.

Workers may have other relevant backgrounds, for example, military or EMT experience. The goal is finding individuals whose experience helps them understand that “safety is serious.” If you can identify a few individuals and present the safety advocate role as a development opportunity, you may be able to develop safety “deputies” and gain eyes, ears, and peer support for your programs.

Your company may want to provide incentives for participating, but someone who volunteers for a reward is not necessarily the best candidate. The ideal advocate is someone who participates out of a desire to help others.

Running the safety program

Once a few potential advocates are identified, they’ll need training on their expected roles. You can start small, since even one person from three or four different departments could have a substantial impact in their areas.

When developing training, don’t expect them to learn everything at once. Identify a few key issues that have been challenging in their work areas, and focus only on those areas to start. You can always add additional items in the future.

Training might cover a review of key safety issues, along with guidance on how to gently remind coworkers to follow the rules. For instance, ask them to share the experience that caused them to volunteer or to offer phrases to use such as, “Steve, I’m worried you’ll get hurt reaching past the guard. I have a friend who lost two fingers doing that.”

If the potential advocates don’t have their own stories to share, give them examples from your own company’s experience or (if your safety record is strong) from other employers.

Although they’ll be telling friends and peers to “follow the rules” in a practical sense, their purpose is to deliver reminders and encouragement, not to threaten discipline or to report violations. Essentially, these advocates are leading from the middle by inspiring others through their actions, along with giving encouragement.

Key to remember: Getting even a few safety advocates could act as a force multiplier, with the benefit of potentially greater acceptance among employees when reminders come from peers rather than from leadership.

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