Written by: Sierra Morris
Having an open-door policy (essentially welcoming employees of all levels to bring concerns to upper management) is a bit of a mixed bag; it’s easy to find reasons to argue both for and against it, at least as far as general management goes. But occupational safety and health is a whole other breed of workplace management and necessitates an open-door policy despite the potential drawbacks.
The benefits and importance of open communication in safety far outweigh the few pitfalls – some of which should not really apply to safety.
Improve Your Safety Program Through Having an Open-door Policy
One of the more popular arguments against an open-door policy, for instance, is that allowing lower-level employees to jump straight to upper management and bypass the normal chain of command creates extra work for upper management, and can cause middle management (like supervisors or foremen) to feel undermined.
But at times, this bypass may be necessary; sometimes middle management is the problem, and in the world of health and safety, middle management “problems” could cost someone their life. Extra work is hard to turn your nose up to when the consequence of not encouraging open channels of communication could mean that very dangerous problems go undiscovered and unresolved.
Encouraging everyone to have a voice with upper management, regardless of title or position, also provides lower-level employees a rare sense of agency. Giving everyone a chance to communicate their ideas or grievances concerning the safety program grants them the opportunity to feel heard, appreciated, and like they are a part of the team.
Most people agree these elements are important to program buy-in and retention. It also helps the safety program; who knows better about what’s really going on and what the reality is “out there” better than the people who work in it every day?
Issues that may begin cropping up could range from “we need better equipment” to “there’s a lot of confusion regarding XYZ policy” to “my supervisor doesn’t take safety seriously” to “there’s something dangerous going on out here that isn’t being addressed.” It pays to listen.
When lower-level employees don’t feel encouraged to communicate, they tend to say nothing at all, feeling like nothing will be done. Human beings, when faced with stress and without any agency or control, tend to instead adapt and avoid. This means that employees without a voice typically just suffer in silence, letting unsafe situations go because it seems like the path of least resistance.
But this, of course, isn’t conducive to a safe work environment. Again, it pays to listen.
How Should You Facilitate an Open-door Policy
An open-door policy in occupational safety and health will mean more than just an open office door, although that is crucial. An open-door policy in safety will also necessitate approachable and amenable managers, representatives, coordinators, administrators, advisors, specialists – whatever you may choose to call them.
Everyone on the safety team needs to be approachable and ready to listen to whatever their workforce may have to say. And, of course, how upper management chooses to listen is of vital importance.
When dealing with face-to-face communication, it’s important to note that how leadership responds to the communication will have a lasting effect on both the employee and the rest of the workplace; responses from upper management will set precedence and have a ripple effect on the workplace’s culture.
Safety personnel should be aware of what not to do or say in response to concerns, and what sort of immediate responses are constructive. Negative, demeaning, passive destructive, or even just passive constructive responses can send the message that an employee’s concerns aren’t worth expressing.
A positive, open, and attentive response is key. Remember, people talk, and their reception will trickle its way down into the masses and affect everyone’s confidence in the program as a whole.
Allow Employees to Express Themselves
Allowing employees to express themselves in groups is another way to promote open communication; people often feel empowered when they are surrounded by those they identify with, and may be more comfortable speaking when they feel they are being supported by a panel of their peers.
This goes back to tribal psychology, and the powerful emotions associated with belonging to and acting as a group. Consider forming a council consisting of employees from every skill and authority level, an equal sampling of all types of employees affected by the safety program; this will facilitate and encourage open communication between the workforce and the safety team, encouraging the exchange of ideas and grievances in a safe forum.
Allow Employees to Communicate Concerns
Aside from face-to-face interactions, it may behoove any organization to provide anonymous ways for employees to submit concerns or suggestions, such as through an online portal or through a physical submission box placed somewhere private.
Another idea is creating and distributing anonymous surveys which address issues such as “how important do you feel safety is to your supervisor?”, “how effective do you believe the safety program is?”, or “how seriously do you feel your coworkers treat safe work procedures?” (A good way to track results by crew, work group, or shift would be to assign each important designator a number that would be placed at the top of the page.)
Why might this practice be a good idea? At some workplaces, middle management (whether intentionally or unintentionally) promotes a culture of intimidation or aggression, discouraging whistle-blowing, “tattle-telling,” or “complaining”; providing an anonymous way to express concerns protects anyone who may be afraid of retaliation.
Of course, receiving concerns and suggestions for improvement from the workforce is only the first step. Once upper management knows of a problem or potential room for improvement, it becomes the responsibility of all to address that need or issue. If employees don’t see their concerns or suggestions being addressed in at least some minimal way, their faith in the system will rapidly deteriorate and the safety culture will suffer. Buy-in will diminish and people will feel as though reporting issues or concerns is a waste of their time.
Accountability is key, and so is communication back to the workforce that responsibility for the problem or improvement opportunity is being addressed. Adopting a bulletin board, weekly newsletter, monthly “magazine,” or even just an email list with emails promoting new initiatives or ideas might be some good ways to show employees that their voices are being heard and their causes are being advocated for.
There is no “wrong” way to facilitate an open-door policy in safety, except not to have one. Potential problems or deficiencies in an occupational safety and health program are too serious not to listen to, no matter how small or insignificant some may turn out to be.
In the end, especially for safety when lives are on the line, it’s better to hear more than you wanted to hear than to not hear enough. And the fastest way to ensure buy-in, transparency, honesty, and ownership of the program is to make certain all employees feel involved in the safety process. Listen to your people; you’ll never be sorry you did.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.
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