Individualism in EHS

Focusing on the ‘me’, becoming self-reliant and assigning less importance to what others think or do is certainly a healthy philosophy.  These values are widely experienced as part of individualism; the idea that freedom of thought and action for each person is the most important quality of a society, rather than shared effort and responsibility.

A 2017 study published by Psychology Science explains that as countries become more economically developed, society can see a rise in a greater sense of self-reliance and detachment from others. Coupled with our exposure to exabytes of information with the click of a button, the freedom of choice is constantly expanding and so too is the individual’s selection of how to spend their time. In the competition for attention there are winners and losers, and by no means does the playing field end where the workplace begins.

Side note: The phenomenon of social media in the past 15 years has fueled our already individualistic culture – some would claim that it encourages narcissism – and is undoubtedly the biggest facilitator to the fact that the Oxford English word of the year 2013 was, unashamedly, “selfie.”

Why individualism should be considered by EHS professionals

Suffice to say, disengagement is not a good thing for safety. It’s a recognized trait of a weak safety culture. ISHN reported findings from the magazine’s annual EHS State Of The Nation survey that “employee behavioral reliability / consistent safe behaviors” is the number one high impact challenge in achieving the top goal of improving safety culture – it would be naïve to suggest that worker personality has no part to play.

How much of this is down to attitudes taken by organizations, and how much is a symptom of an increasingly unengaged society?

The competition for attention

With so much information at our fingertips it is very difficult not to become disengaged. You might think the opposite is true, that social media makes us more social and Google makes us more knowledgeable – and there is a strong case for that, especially the latter – but it can simultaneously be argued that this constant competition for our attention means we have more choice as to where we devote our precious time, and, subsequently, more information to ignore. Consider this: 59% of social media users will share an article without even reading it. Many people are more concerned with the headline, the snapshot that is often sensationalized, than they are with understanding the bigger picture.

Mobile phones may be banned on the factory floor, but the tendency to switch between activities is ingrained in us as we adapt to the proliferation of media day in, day out. Precisely this constraint on time – the pressure that there is so much other ‘stuff’ we could choose to lend our attention to – is what may become, if it is not already, a challenge for EHS professionals in coming years: engaging the distracted workforce to feel part of ‘something bigger’ than themselves, which is the safety of all.

Safety only works if everyone takes part. The worry is that an insular mindset seeps into the workplace. However, disengagement doesn’t have to be a conscious thing. In fact, most times it’s not. Paying attention to training is hard, let alone watching a trivial video on the internet that lasts over 30 seconds. All this is not to mention the path we are on towards a ‘gig’ economy, providing services as and where required in a contractor like fashion, which has been a concern of EHS professionals for many years. The EHS State Of The Nation survey found “temporary worker safety” is a medium to high impact risk for organizations, as managing 15-20 contractors on the one site under one safety culture (the ‘something bigger’) is not an easy task. EHS software technology is now addressing the issue of getting contractors to report hazards, but this is just one piece in the puzzle – on a similar note, another piece that’s difficult to grasp is the speed of technological change, but that’s another conversation altogether.

Side note: We only have to look at the most recently elected POTUS to realize how information sharing has changed; social media such as Twitter have encouraged the tendency to consume what could be vast pieces of information in 140 characters or less (if it can’t be summed up quickly, is it worth my time?) If the President embodies such traits, what hope do we have!

Giving ‘human factors’ the respect they deserve

In the wake of growing individualism, what can EHS professionals do? The challenge is in emphasizing the value of communication, interdependence, recognizing that an individual’s actions affect many, and that “good workplace safety attitudes are represented by attentiveness, eagerness, alertness, carefulness, task focused, team-oriented and seriousness” (Source.) Rather than just tackling the tip of the iceberg with tighter rule enforcement and better technology, both of which have a lot going for them, EHS professionals can invest in the person by addressing the underlying ‘human factor’ skills, or lack thereof, that are more than likely contributing to performance. Human factors that affect safety can include the following.

1. Situation awareness
2. Decision making
3. Communication
4. Teamwork
5. Leadership
6. Performance shaping factors (stress, fatigue, ergonomics, etc.)

How do you help workers improve on these non-technical but critical skills? How can you achieve a level of mutual understanding and respect that transcends the distractions of Generation Information? There’s no silver bullet, unfortunately, much at odds with expectations in 2017, but there are various methods from two broad angles in particular.

A two-fold solution

Move with the times

You do not want to be fighting a losing battle, and society is a hard one to beat. Start with that iceberg tip. Utilize the technologies that your workforce is already engaged with – switching from paper to electronic forms is a big step, and incorporating mobility into the mix is another that may seem daunting but that can require surprisingly little investment for substantial returns in engagement.

Automation is allowing action to be taken much more quickly following a hazard or unsafe behavior report, it is improving accuracy, and it is making taking part in safety initiatives a seamless experience. For example, a training portal on the company intranet where a combination of short and in-depth training videos are stored that can be accessed by employees easily and in their own time; or an EHS system that integrates with existing central IT like SharePoint to facilitate Single Sign On (SSO) and eliminate yet another step in the user experience. Individuals don’t like barriers, so remove as many as you can from your safety processes.

However, finding out what will resonate with your workers requires conversation. This is the hidden part of the iceberg.

Keep it two-way in more ways than one

Individuals want to feel valued – the biggest driver of engagement is whether or not workers feel appreciated – but unfortunately we as a race struggle to express positive emotions in the workplace. It’s not something we’re used to doing, whereas communicating our negative emotions seems much more routine.

Now apply this to unsafe and safe behaviors at work. Utilizing technology to encourage conversation, Pro-Sapien client VINCI recognized that learning about positive interventions is just as important as being aware of hazards. In 2013 VINCI worked with Pro-Sapien to deploy mobile forms accessible by all, broadening the spectrum of participation to allow the reporting of good practice as well as poor, and the company has since experienced increased engagement and won two awards for innovation. VINCI strives to reward successes as vigilantly as it corrects failures – a double-sided coin.

In another example, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of glass and glazing systems, Nippon Sheet Glass (NSG) demonstrates the company’s commitment to conversation by holding an annual ‘NSG Group Safety Day’ at various global locations to allow workers and management to mix, technology to be tested, training to be recapped and new concepts to be explored:

“My aim is to build on and continue to move Safety to the next level. Our safety programs emphasize the importance of individuals taking personal responsibility and of appropriate safe behavior, with managers taking the lead through their commitment to our Key Safety Leadership Behaviors. NSG Group Safety Day is designed to bring special focus to this important area in all our plants around the world.” – Shigeki Mori, President and CEO, NSG Group

Perhaps not an achievable activity at every organization, but to walk the floor, to visit the locations you are responsible for, to engage in meaningful conversations with employees, to gather their grievances and ideas, to discuss your own ideas with workers, each requires little investment for invaluable returns.

Side note: For those in the UK, Step Change In Safety has a whole host of resources available on the human factors in safety, including a toolkit which helps companies gauge their relationship between human action and safety performance.

Strategy and tactics have equal importance in engaging individualistic personalities

Individualism has incredible advantages; it’s a hallmark of Western democracy and culture. It reminds us that a human being is important in himself and encourages us that our individual opinion matters. Through celebrating the successes but recognizing the challenges, we can avoid disengagement with colleagues and the safety of others to instead align not only the goals of workers and management, but the steps of how we get there.

All in all, if the reported top high impact challenge remains “employee behavior reliability / consistent safe behaviors” EHS professionals should incorporate addressing human factors into their strategy and tactics. This means helping workers develop their communication, teamwork, leadership and decision-making skills in order for these to underpin a deeper understanding of the shared safety goal. Consider the trends of modern society, such as on-demand information, and cater initiatives to facilitate a higher level of engagement from workers who – especially Millennials – put importance on self-reliance and independence, who are inundated with decisions to make as to how to divert their attention, but all the while who maintain that need to feel valued as a human being.

Perhaps this topic is more food-for-thought than anything actionable, but I hope you’re now – if you weren’t already – considering how you can go above and beyond in engaging the individual. I’ve suggested a number of ways to approach the challenge such as pairing technology and conversation in harmony, but if you have any ideas you’d like to circulate in light of what’s been put on the table, please do help us out!

This article was also featured as an ISHN Web Exclusive.

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