17 Feb 2020

Looking after the people that matter: engaging employees through a genuine concern for their safety


We’re currently developing video content for First Bus’s new driver training course: “Getting Home Safely”. This project has got us thinking more about safety and asking:

  • How can we engage employees to behave safely?
  • How can we use safety to inspire and encourage (rather than reprimand and demoralise)?

Talking about “health and safety” doesn’t typically excite employees (or blog post readers, for that matter). But there’s no denying it – it’s important. And it might surprise you to learn that prioritising safety could dramatically improve your organisation’s culture, performance and bank balance…

The multiple benefits of a “safety first” culture

Aside from the obvious and overriding motivator of preventing loss and injury, businesses can benefit in multiple ways from creating a culture where safety is top priority. 

In this Forbes article, Rodd Wagner argues that:

“Putting safety first is one of the best strategies for getting an organisation to realise its potential. A leadership team that cracks the code on keeping people safe will simultaneously drive higher levels of performance in ways otherwise difficult to accomplish.”

Evidence tells us that putting employees (and customers) first is a brilliant business strategy. So it makes sense to start with their most basic need: to be safe.

Across certain industries (transport, manufacturing etc.) safety does – and should – come under close scrutiny. But even for desk-bound employees, safety is still of paramount importance. (Arguably, sitting behind a computer screen for 8 hours a day could pose as much danger to physical and mental safety as operating heavy machinery).

If a “safety first” approach is done well, it can transform an organisation in more ways than might be expected. But too often, a dogmatic narrative around safety creates an atmosphere of blame and punishment. Cue a culture of fear and frustration, with much eye-rolling and groaning! 

Safety as a powerful and positive force for change

Wondering how to get safety right in your organisation? Look no further than the legendary Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa, an American aluminium manufacturing company. In “The Power of Habit” Charles Duhigg recounts how O’Neill turned the failing organisation around, by channelling his energies into one crucial habit: worker safety. 

O’Neill explained:

“You can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing…Everyone deserves to leave work as safely as they arrive, right?” 

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organisation. These “keystone habits” can influence how people, work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. 

Getting safety right means reassuring employees that an organisation cares about its people. Wagner points out that this sense of caring and protection “swells up into everything you do” and “creates the sense of pride about the organisation you’re involved in.”

And certainly, at Alcoa, it wasn’t just safety that improved. Other benefits rapidly unfolded: more efficient work processes, greater accountability, a better flow of communication between workers and managers, improved productivity, increased engagement. Not to mention a sharp upturn in financial performance. By the time O’Nell retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived in 1987. 

Using safety to give employees a voice

Within O’Neill’s first year as CEO at Alcoa, accident rates had fallen. And the leader’s narrative around safety made for a refreshing change. His congratulatory memo to all employees read: “We shouldn’t celebrate because we’ve followed rules, or brought down a number. We should celebrate because we’re saving lives.”  This message was so meaningful, that workers made copies of the note and taped it to their lockers. 

Talking about safety gave employees a voice and a platform to share other ideas. As O’Neill recounts:

“I said to the hourly workers, ‘If your management doesn’t follow up on safety issues, then call me at home, here’s my  number.’ Workers started calling, but they didn’t want to talk about accidents. They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas.”

If creating a culture of safety opens up new channels of communication and gives employees a voice, this can only be a positive step for an organisation. Employees feel listened to – and management benefit by tapping into this valuable insight.

A genuine concern for safety

Safety is a “natural rallying point” because it’s in everyone’s interests – the employees’ and the company’s.  It has the power to drive employee engagement and boost morale. Wagner enthuses:

“When employees believe their employer is aiming to keep them safe, it unleashes the kind of reciprocity that affects more than just the accident rate.”

Processes and policies have their place, but authenticity behind the message is essential. You will only engage your people with safety directives, if they genuinely believe that you care. The overriding message that “our people’s lives matter most” must be loud and clear.