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Increase Employee Engagement to Decrease Safety Incidents

Industry Trends | By | 5 Apr 2016 | 9 minute read

A Gallup survey of 2015 revealed that only about 30% of Americans are actively engaged in their everyday work. Disengagement in an office setting leads to lower productivity and profit loss, but disengagement at a construction site could lead to employee injury or even graver consequences. In fact, companies ranked in the top 25% in terms of employee engagement saw a 48% decrease in safety incidents compared to the bottom 25%. With the average medically-consulted injury resulting in a $39,000 expense for the employer, this provides a massive opportunity for ROI on safety initiatives.

[Tweet “Companies in top 25% of #employeeengagement see 48% decrease in safety incidents”]

This is an idea that Paul O’Neil of Alcoa inherently understood and integrated into his philosophy there. When he took the reigns of this company in 1987 investors expected him to lead with speeches of increased profit margins, or revenue projections but instead he chose to focus on worker safety. “Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general American workforce…but it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” That’s a lofty goal for any construction company but it paid off. Alcoa dropped from 1.86 lost days to injury per 100 workers to 0.2 days. The company’s profits also hit a record high. O’Neill says: “ I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.” With all this data, it stands to reason that by increasing employee engagement, we see a decrease in safety incidents and an ultimate increase in ROI. Then how do we go about increasing employee engagement?

Trends in employee engagement are indicating a shift in the relationships between managers and employees, with each party seeing each other more as collaborative teammates rather than the traditional authoritative roles. This type of relationship also leads to a decentralization of a lot of the decision-making within a firm, and a sharp focus on responsiveness of a leadership team. We’re also seeing these relationships become more digitally advanced as managers are increasingly able to see safety initiatives or project progress from anywhere on a construction site thanks to mobile devices and more advanced data systems. Trends are also showing how important employees find healthy work-life balance and the care employers express to their workers. To ensure you’re attracting and retaining the best talent, stay current on these trends and implement solutions as quickly as possible to any disengagement issues.

In the chart below, we see that construction is one of the job categories on the higher end of engagement. Though construction is outstripped by farming/fishing and managers/executives, they see higher engagement than most office positions.

Employee Engagement by Job Category

As managers and executives are among the most engaged employees at work, how can we ensure that this same level of engagement is communicated and encouraged among frontline workers? Following are some solutions to the biggest problems in construction employee engagement.

Decentralize safety decision-making  to empower individuals

Trends in today’s workplace are shifting away from the traditional methods of managers simply instructing employees on how to perform their jobs, to more of a collaborative and communicative working relationship between managers and employees. This means that responsibility at various stages of a project is shared not just amongst the planners and managers, but also amongst the frontline workers. Safety standards in particular are a responsibility that no longer needs to rest solely with one specific individual or team. Construction organizations are moving toward a “safety culture” rather than a “safety police”. Today’s technology allows construction firms to do that, with mobile apps that allow employees to take photos of hazards and communicate them back to management or to other individuals within a team. Having a safety culture holds every frontline worker, manager in an office, or C suite executive accountable for upholding the company’s quality and safety standards. Paul O’Neill, mentioned in the Alcoa example above elicited feedback from every employee of the company and implemented many of their safety suggestions to the company’s benefit.

This positive impact on an organization is three fold:

  • Decrease lag time in correcting a safety hazard, as an employee is empowered to make a call on his or her own
  • Reduces tension between teams with a departure from the “us vs. them” mentality
  • Increases employee engagement as a result of shared responsibility

The third bullet point is the main focus for our current purposes. When a large initiative like overall workplace safety is adopted and lauded from the ground up, rather than an idea pushed from the top down, it encourages independence and increases employee engagement.

This empowerment through decentralization also has another inherent benefit in that it forces a behavioral modification towards increased communication. The communication is no longer a one-way instruction from manager to employee, but a two-way conversation that allows managers to collect feedback and a more comprehensive view of a project. If executed correctly, it can also make management more approachable and available for guidance and assistance, rather than unreachable within an office building.

In fact, in The Checklist Manifesto (a cult classic here at SafetyCulture), author Atul Gawande notes how individual empowerment is at the crux of a construction company’s success. He argues that ensuring an office building is up to code is such a complex project, the expertise required couldn’t possibly rest in the hands of one person. Inspectors are forced to disperse power and responsibility. In addition, safety conditions are frequently unpredictable and constantly changing, so establishing a decentralized safety structure and allowing individuals to have the freedom and flexibility to make judgment calls is what will keep them safe.

Set an example

Empowering your team members to be independent and actively engaged in their own safety doesn’t mean that you can stop leading by example. You are the catalyst for creating a safety-driven culture, but the idea is for it to catch on and spread to others. In fact, in companies where leaders model the desired behaviors, employees are 55% more engaged and 53% more focused and more likely to stay at the company. Setting an example could mean being an evangelist for a new safety technology to be adopted, or it could be something as simple as being responsive when safety hazards arise.

On a similar note to setting an example; recognize when someone else is not setting an example or is even toxic. According to a study published by the Harvard Business School, toxic workers are defined as a worker who engages in behavior that is “harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.” In an office environment, this can be someone who has a terrible attitude and brings down the office morale or spreads this toxicity to others. However, on a construction site, this could lead to serious equipment damage or even worker injury. If someone is not giving safety procedures the attention they deserve, identify it as quickly as possible and take the actions necessary to ameliorate that behavior. Cutting corners in safety to save time can quickly spread from one person to another in a work zone. Toxic workers frequently display personality traits such as: overconfidence or self-regarding. In fact, this same study found that toxic workers have a stronger impact on the organization than “superstars”, or individuals who are within the top 1% of productivity. The impact is more significant because of the virality of toxicity. A toxic behavior on a construction site just results in more toxic behavior. Thus, it’s more important to identify and address a toxic worker than it is to keep a superstar.

Be responsive

The largest factor that influences employee commitment to an organization is the manager-employee relationship. A manager creates the perception of an organization for an employee, thus the relationship an employee has with an organization is directly dependent on the manager-employee relationship. Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. In fact, a recent study showed that employees who trust their managers have more pride in their organization and are more likely to feel that they are applying their individual talents for their own successes and for that of an organization. Unfortunately, that same study revealed that only 56% of American employees feel that their managers have a good understanding of what they do and how it promotes the use of their unique talents. Again, Paul O’Neill of Alcoa understood the importance of this, and handed out his personal number to employees to ensure they could always reach him.

Employees tend to favor managers who:

  • Show commitment to diversity
  • Take responsibility for successes and failures
  • Demonstrate honesty and transparency
  • Help find solutions to problems
  • Respect and care for employees as individuals
  • Set realistic performance expectations
  • Demonstrate passion for success
  • Defend direct reports

Thus, increased communication within an organization is wasted if there are no follow ups to that communication. As discussed earlier with a mobile checklist, if an employee communicates a safety hazard to management but the issue lies untouched in an inbox somewhere, this negates any of the trust formed from enhanced communication. A good manager will encourage this sort of feedback by helping to find a solution.

Being responsive also doesn’t necessarily mean solely being reactive. Request feedback on how to improve safety processes, or about new implementations of safety processes. If you want to know the best ways to improve your safety methods, ask the people directly involved in them.

Empowerment through clear progressions

Organizations need to ensure that safety is an integral part of growth within a construction company. Make it clear that taking on responsibility for and promoting safety initiatives is a required standard for progressing within the company, and lay out clear steps associated with that progression. Speak with employees within the organization to find out where interests and strengths lie to determine the best trainings or developmental processes to initiate. The Lindum Group, a top-ranked construction firm in employee engagement, encourages employees to seek out and request their own training and development.

Also communicate how an individual is already performing in their safety initiatives with an employee audit. A commitment to training instills a sense of personal growth and progress in their own careers and skill development. Providing an individual with progress reports to let them know how they’re already performing, as well as roadmap to know how to further succeed, keeps them engaged and growing their own skills as well as the organization.

Connect safety to larger goal for the organization

Another requirement to getting employees engaged in safety processes is to establish a clear connection between these seemingly small tweaks and larger company goals. Make it clear how valuable daily checklists or take 5s are to the project and firm as a whole. Communicate big “safety wins” or company statistics that show employees how they have directly contributed to the KPIs of the entire organization. This kind of organizational clarity will also encourage emotional buy in from each employee.

Emotional commitment to a project is the extent to which an employee derives meaning, pride or self-fulfillment from their work and it’s a significant variable in engagement and employee performance. Emotional commitment has proved to be a more significant driver in employee engagement than even rational commitment. Rational commitment would be affected if an employer offered some sort of monetary gain for positive safety scores. If you want real safety buy in, look at how to communicate the meaning behind the safety practices, rather than providing professional or financial incentives.

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Recognize and reward

Charles Schwab said, “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among men the greatest asset I possess. The way to develop the best in a man is by appreciation and encouragement.” Ensure that employees realize how much their commitment to safety, and work in general, is appreciated. Highlight short-term and long-term wins, such as a decrease in incidents for the week, or an increase in (some sort of certification for construction workers). Technology can  help here as well. You’re likely using some sort of auditing software, use the analytics to determine which teams are performing the best on their audits or who has seen the most improvement then call them out accordingly.

Also, communicate where the organization as a whole may be struggling in safety initiatives, then ask employees to focus efforts there. Survey people about how they think they’re doing on this initiative currently, and what they could do to improve. Tell employees what you’ve learned from feedback and use that to improve future safety procedures. Once you see an improvement in those highlighted areas, you can integrate the recognition and reward here as well.

Work life balance

This is one area where employers may benefit from being more old-school in their approach. With today’s constant connectedness thanks to advancing technology, workers are feeling the pressure to constantly be checking email or responding to calls outside normal business hours. However, particularly in an industry like construction, which is frequently labor-intensive, it’s important to provide time where employees can decompress and rejuvenate. Google implemented a policy where they dropped off their laptops at the front desk each night before they went home and employees reported feeling less stressed and more motivated to accomplish their work. While you may not need to take a leaf out of Google’s book just yet, note that when construction companies announce a focus on work-life balance, they see higher commitment rates to the organization and lower turnover.

Determining engagement

If you know that your firm or organization could use a recommitment to employee engagement, start with the following questionnaire to see where your areas for improvement lie.

  • Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  • Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
  • At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  • In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  • At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  • Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
  • Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
  • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
  • In the past year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

“Employee engagement” is a term that used pretty gratuitously. But the companies that commit to monitoring and improving upon it are the ones who see huge returns in terms of human capital. It’s not enough to pay lip service to this idea and with the actionable 7 solutions above, you’re certainly on the right track. Share with other firms and companies in the comments below some of the engagement initiatives your firm has tried and let others build on those successes.

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