Elevating Occupational Safety: A New Holistic Approach for Excellence

Industrial Safety & Hygiene news - January 2024
By: Shawn M. Galloway
Printable Version

Despite confidence in your hierarchy of controls, can your employees obey all the rules, follow all the procedures, wear all the required personal protective equipment, and still be injured? Of course they can. There will always be a need to improve risk identification and reduction capacity with employees at the sharp end of the stick (closest to the risks), and for a culture conducive to making safe choices every time.

Do your employees truly know what to look for and can they recognize the hazards and risks associated with their tasks? Do they know what precautions to take when encountering them and how, when, where, and why to apply them? Is it psychologically safe to openly recognize hazards and risks and choose safe actions within the culture? Are leaders and coworkers providing a balance of feedback when the safe choice is being made or when concerning behaviors are observed? Is coaching common within the safety culture or overall occupational culture?

To create a workplace with the capacity to achieve excellence in occupational safety, organizations must employ a multifaceted, holistic approach that integrates existing and new key concepts—visual literacy, precaution competency, psychological safety, shared ownership and collective intentionality, and a coaching culture. By synergizing these concepts, organizations can cultivate a safety culture that goes beyond compliance, fostering an environment where individuals actively contribute to and benefit from a collective commitment to the pursuit of safety excellence at work.

safety accountability flowchart

Image: Holistic Approach to Elevate Occupational Safety

Visual Literacy serves as the foundation for effective communication in occupational safety. Theories of memory and learning conceived during Classical and Medieval times brought attention to the theory that the order of information in the mind was based on the visual format of words and lines. In 1969, John Debes, co-founder of the International Visual Literacy Association, provided a tentative definition1 of the concept he coined: "Visual literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences." The UK's independent charity National Literacy Trust defines literacy as "the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world."2

Increasing visual literacy is becoming a vital area of focus for more advanced organizations pursuing excellence in safety performance and culture. Organizations can transcend language and other barriers and enhance the understanding of safety protocols by incorporating visual elements such as infographics, signage, and instructional diagrams. Visual aids create a shared visual language that facilitates communication and ensures safety information is accessible to all. How are you enabling your workforce to make sense of the hazards and risks they experience at work?

Precaution Competency involves anticipating, assessing, and managing risks effectively. A precaution is a behavior that can prevent something unwanted from occurring. Precaution competency is established when an individual can demonstrate knowledge of risks and the capabilities and confidence in choosing the appropriate behaviors to address situations presenting hazards and the potential for an unwanted outcome.

Integrating this concept into occupational safety means empowering individuals with the skills to identify potential hazards, make informed decisions, and take proactive measures. Precaution competency enhances the workforce's ability to mitigate risks before they escalate, fostering a safety-conscious environment. Does everyone in your organization know what to do when encountering each of the many types of hazards and risks?

Psychological Safety is pivotal in shaping how individuals interact within a team and contribute to safety discussions. Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, the concept refers to the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Psychological safety is the assurance that one will not face punitive actions or embarrassment for speaking up, asking questions, or sharing ideas. It creates an environment where individuals feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks, contributing to open communication, and fostering a culture of trust.

Cultivating a psychologically safe environment encourages open communication, where people can express concerns and share ideas without fear of judgment. When individuals feel safe to voice safety-related issues, organizations benefit from a wealth of insights which contribute to improved safety outcomes. What are the trust levels within your organization, between levels or within peer groups?

Shared Ownership and Collective Intentionality is the final destination in efforts to engage employees. After obtaining buy-in, observing willing participation, and involving employees to foster a sense of self-ownership and shared ownership, collective intentionality is when employee engagement reaches its peak. This occurs when team members have a sense of collective responsibility, collaboration, and commitment.

When individuals feel a shared stake in a common objective, it enhances teamwork, communication, and accountability. This collective ownership can lead to increased motivation, better problem-solving, and a more robust team culture, ultimately contributing to the organization's success.

Coaching Culture promotes continuous learning, encourages open communication, and fosters a growth mindset among employees. Coaching is about helping people perform to the best of their abilities every time, everywhere. It is not a step in progressive discipline. A coaching culture supports individual development, helping employees reach their full potential as it allows employees to set and achieve goals, enhances skills, and boost confidence. It also improves team dynamics, as coaching emphasizes collaboration, open communication, feedback and shared goals, and creates a positive feedback loop.

Ultimately, a coaching culture contributes to increased employee engagement, higher performance levels, and adaptability to change. These are crucial factors for long-term organizational success and a necessary aspect of culture to achieve excellence in occupational safety.

The benefits to an organization by integrating these elements are tremendous and becoming a strategic imperative. Here are a few:

Enhanced Communication and Understanding: Visual literacy aids in conveying complex safety information effectively to diverse audiences. Precautionary measures, when clearly communicated visually, are more likely to be understood and followed.

Skill Development and Adaptability: Competency development ensures employees possess the skills and knowledge to handle safety challenges. A coaching culture supports ongoing skill enhancement, fostering adaptability to changing safety requirements.

Employee Well-being and Engagement: Psychological safety encourages employees to voice concerns without fear, promoting a focus on well-being. Shared ownership and collective intentionality create a sense of responsibility for each other's safety, enhancing overall engagement.

Proactive Risk Mitigation: A coaching culture encourages a proactive approach to identifying and mitigating risks. Collective intentionality ensures that teams are mutually focused on minimizing potential hazards and risks.

Operational Efficiency and Reputation: Competent and safety-conscious employees contribute to operational efficiency and minimized disruptions. A strong safety culture enhances the organization's reputation, making it more attractive to customers, partners, and investors.

Market Differentiation: Companies known for their commitment to safety excellence stand out in the marketplace. Shared ownership and collective intentionality create a positive company culture, which can be a differentiator in a competitive market.

Regulatory Compliance: Visual literacy and clear precautionary measures help to meet regulatory requirements. Competent and well-coached teams ensure compliance with industry standards.

Risk Reduction and Cost Savings: A holistic approach to safety reduces the likelihood of accidents and incidents. Shared ownership and collective intentionality contribute to a proactive safety mindset, minimizing accident costs.

Adaptation to Industry Changes: A coaching culture promotes a learning mindset, allowing the organization to adapt quickly to changes in safety standards or industry regulations.

Sustainable Growth: Companies with a comprehensive safety approach are more likely to achieve long-term, sustainable growth. A positive safety culture contributes to employee retention and attracts top talent, supporting organizational development.

Organizations can weave a rich tapestry of safety initiatives by leveraging visual literacy, precaution competency, psychological safety, shared ownership and collective intentionality, and coaching culture. Integrating these elements creates a robust safety culture that protects employees and positions the organization as a leader in safety excellence, ultimately contributing to its success and dominance in the marketplace. This comprehensive approach addresses individual competencies and cultivates a shared commitment to occupational safety. As organizations embrace this holistic strategy, they pave the way for a workplace where safety is not just a set of protocols but a collective intention that permeates every aspect of the organizational culture.

  1. Harrison, K. (accessed 2024, January 3) What Is Visual Literacy? Visual Literacy Today. https://visualliteracytoday.org/what-is-visual-literacy/
  2. "What is Literacy?" (accessed 2024, January 3) https://literacytrust.org.uk/information/what-is-literacy/

Shawn M. Galloway is the CEO of ProAct Safety and co-author of several bestselling books. As an award-winning consultant, adviser, leadership coach and keynote speaker, he has helped hundreds of organizations within every major industry to improve safety strategy, culture, leadership and engagement. He is also the host of the highly acclaimed weekly podcast series Safety Culture Excellence®.
For more information, call (936) 273-8700 or email info@ProActSafety.com.

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