Revisiting Safety Culture And Gaps In Worker Development During Organizational Uncertainty.
By Joseph McGuire, Emily J. Haas and Lucas Simpson
Changes to the workplace have required organizations to reconsider their approaches to workers’ daily task processes, training, and ongoing development. This even includes how and in what ways management may choose to communicate with workers during their normal workdays.
A plethora of webinars, presentations, and trade magazines have highlighted some of the noteworthy, quick pivots made among the aggregates and construction sectors over the last two years (e.g., 1–5). This continued, visible priority toward safety shown by organizations has played a key role in mitigating worker stress and improving wellbeing (6).
Although such changes have been critical to protect the health and safety of workers, challenges associated with keeping them engaged has been ongoing, with some arguing for an increase in human-centric approaches on the job (2). A strong safety culture that emphasizes leadership, communication, and worker engagement in decision making are primary components of such approaches (7).
Not surprisingly, much has been learned about not only the importance of, but also the effectiveness of, different engagement and communication mediums to empower workers. Worker empowerment efforts emphasize autonomy and have been shown to improve accountability, productivity, job satisfaction, and to predict future engagement (8, 9).
For example, one study showed that 82% of industrial operations that empower their frontline workers see higher levels of job satisfaction among their workforce (10). Further, the efforts made by senior management when uncertainty exists have been shown to positively contribute to worker decision making (11).
To date, research has explored ways to engage workers on the job. However, most of these ideas involve daily group activities at the work site. Examples include group committees, safety shares during shift meetings, and group selection of new personal protective equipment (12, 13).
As job roles have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting to more virtual interactions, the importance of engaging workers during any available touchpoint to empower safe decision making has become more crucial.
With the above trends in mind, this article highlights broad changes and improvements made by senior leadership within one company to include updates made to training approaches and materials, and how these changes supported worker empowerment efforts within an updated or restructured work environment.
Training Overview and Updates
Over the last several years, Ash Grove Cement, a CRH Americas Company, has refreshed and updated the previous format of its Annual Refresher Training (ART) to re-emphasize a company message: See-Stop-Do. The more detailed collective message, “When we see something, we stop and do something,” stems from CRH’s core value of putting safety first. This “See-Stop-Do” message was traditionally posted on boards in breakrooms for employees to see during clock-in and pre-shift meetings. However, with check-in processes and larger crew meetings occurring less frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic, the visibility of such messages had been affected and reduced the opportunity for daily reminders and face-to-face interaction. Therefore, to maintain worker engagement, competencies, and communication, senior managers at the Ash Grove Cement plant in Louisville, Neb., integrated new modules into the company’s ART.
Training Structure and Content
The new modules focused on specific actions – both hard and soft skills – that are necessary to safely complete work tasks that have grown more dangerous in recent years (14). The ARTs were provided in four-hour sessions that included modules on hazards at the work site as well as how to have difficult conversations and make decisions around these hazards with coworkers, supervisors, or individually. It was important to discuss how workers’ roles in Ash Grove’s “See-Stop-Do” message could help prevent incidents at the work site.
In comparison to using eight hours of PowerPoint training like in previous years, updated training activities used small group discussions, writing, reading, supporting videos, and brief lectures followed by targeted activities including the following:
1. An overview of research that explained why workers might be reluctant to speak up or stop work when they observe risky behaviors or conditions.
2. Case examples of high-risk scenarios about hazards specific to their work sites.
3. Prompts for workers to practice how to have difficult or crucial conversations and make decisions. This involved completing written and group activities followed by class-wide debriefs.
After these discussions, Ash Grove Cement workers identified upwards of 100 site-specific hazards relevant to their work sites (e.g., overhead obstacles and blind spots on equipment). Further, workers drafted 62 different areas where task training should be done to mitigate these hazards. Over the last two years, approximately 253 workers have completed a version of this training with CRH Americas.
Although readers may think that the primary takeaways from these trainings, as reported by participating workers, would be the improvement of hazard identification and mitigation, the results were more enlightening. Post-training evaluations were provided to each worker to voluntarily complete, with almost 100% of employees opting to complete the survey.
Open-ended responses identified areas that can be readily adopted by any company to improve worker perceptions and subsequent safety practices. Regarding the delivery process, workers enjoyed interacting and being involved in the training. Specifically, the open discussion and “freedom to speak up” format was touted often. Additionally, group discussions served to make employees feel more comfortable speaking up and improved overall participation.
Further, in response to being asked to pick a safety-related training topic which workers wanted to learn more about, a majority of workers focused on leadership, team building, and improving communication skills, followed by task training. These were the topics that received attention and focus during the soft skills portion of the training and helped to drive overall aspects of safety on the job rather than one specific hazard, according to worker feedback.
This feedback illustrated that these particular workers prefer higher-level discussions that are subject to change from year to year based on skill-building activities. Specifically, 98% of employee participants agreed that the hands-on training design and new training topics were important to safety and believed their behavior would improve because of what they learned.
Lucas Simpson, the health and safety manager for Ash Grove Cement who helped to provide this training to employees, along with Dr. Joseph McGuire, an independent safety consultant who developed and led the trainings discussed in this article, were able to observe and provide several takeaways for the company during the virtual 2021 Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference panel discussion (15). They highlighted the following:
1. Information covered about safety communication during trainings has been actively applied in the field and is often referenced by employees.
2. This different and new training format set the expectations for the new health and safety manager and facilitated an avenue to get to know employees personally in a non-stressful work setting.
3. Being able to provide smaller face-to-face trainings fostered a sense of normalcy in a time of dynamic plant operations.
4. Although committing to in-person trainings during these dynamic times was a bigger time and personnel commitment, it also showed the organization’s priority for safety and preference for worker engagement and education.
5. With the new training format also came new expectations for what training should look like and how it should be conducted moving forward.
These reflections are consistent with those of leaders from other industries. For example, a senior engagement manager was cited by A.S. Hirsch and colleagues (8), indicating that finding opportunities to give workers a voice provides them with a chance to connect with the company mission and strategy and use any mistakes or errors in judgment as learning opportunities.
As Simpson highlighted in his presentation, a non-stressful or non-threatening environment to discuss some of these high-risk scenarios and practice decision making allows for on-the-job skill building without the risk of an incident. This interactive training space also allows consistent trust-building to occur, which supports worker-manager relationships and critical two-way dialogue (16). Finally, the inclusion of the “See-Stop-Do” message during the training helped workers connect CRH’s values to their everyday decision making.
Although the takeaways presented here are brief, they offer important perspectives to consider when trying to establish empowerment initiatives at the top levels of an organization. Ash Grove Cement used its current workplace situation during the pandemic as a catalyst for changing how things have typically been done to improve worker engagement and participation in safety and health practices.
Importantly, CRH Americas learned through previous survey efforts that worker engagement was a gap in its safety culture (17) and has continually sought new methods to improve worker autonomy and involvement. The consistent evaluations of these trainings show that this design does sufficiently involve workers while serving as a mechanism to support the safety culture from a leadership perspective.
Through these changes, the authors also found that workers desire to learn soft skills beyond job-specific knowledge and consequently, as work processes continue to change, can create more of these interactions and teachable moments on the job.
The process created by these authors is modifiable and adaptable for work environments where annual refresher training is required. For more information, please contact Dr. Joe McGuire.
Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mention of any company or product does not constitute endorsement by NIOSH, CDC.
Joseph McGuire, Ph.D. is an independent safety and health consultant ([email protected]), Emily J. Haas, Ph.D. is a research health scientist for NIOSH ([email protected]), and Lucas Simpson, B.S. is a safety manager for Ash Grove Cement, a CRH Company ([email protected] ).
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