When discussing safety in the workplace, it can seem logical to assume that the more rules, procedures and controls in place, the safer your workplace will be. In theory, by limiting employee choice they will be less prone to mistakes and accidents. While having effective rules and procedures is critical, studies show that taking away the employees decision making power actually leads to a more dangerous workplace. A more productive method is empowering employees to make "safe" decisions and creating a culture where these empowered employees can put safety first.
When employees feel they have lost their autonomy it can have far reaching consequences. Job satisfaction and morale decrease while the stress of doing something wrong increases mental fatigue. When employees aren't trusted with making decisions they can begin to mentally "check out", losing confidence and believing that the work they do is less important. These scenarios create environments where employees are less engaged and as a result incidents increase.
In hot climates, workers all around the world still die from heat stroke. Often times, and especially in North America, these deaths are not because the employee didn't have access to water, shelter or adequate breaks. They happen because the employee chose not to take advantage of these reprieves. Why would a laborer not take an unscheduled 10-minute break to re-hydrate and cool off while working in 40-degree weather? Because they feared that breaking the rules would find them punished, even if they felt they were making the "safe" choice. These employees most likely didn't benefit from an empowered workplace where they were trusted to use their best judgment.
Communicate, Don’t Dictate.
There are many ways you can empower your workforce to work confidently and safely. By building a supportive manager/employee relationship that emphasizes improvement and training over discipline, employees will be able to perform their duties in a safe and efficient manner. Strong communication between managers and employees also will help keep everyone safer. For example, by holding a five-minute safety meeting before work begins on a hot day, a foreman or manager can take the opportunity to remind employees of the warning signs and protocol for dealing with potential heat exhaustion. The employees are now empowered with knowledge and will be able to react in the right way should a situation arise. Conveying a sense of trust, individuality and meaningfulness to all employees won’t just make the workplace safer. It will also boost happiness, increase productivity, foster creativity and limit truancy.
When managers lead by example, provide a stimulating workplace, support workers with positive feedback, emphasize training and communicate clearly they help empower their workforce to make the right decisions while on the job. These empowered workers understand their purpose, are confident in the importance of their role and know they have the support of management and co-workers. By creating a culture that engages, stimulates and supports your employees, safety will not be taken for granted and every aspect of your organization will be better off for it.