Can’t get workers to open up? Here’s a strategy that worked

by on August 4, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

You might identify with this experience: One company sought employees’ input to solve a tough fall protection problem.

But most workers were reluctant to help – some thought all they’d get for it was tougher PPE requirements or more discipline. Other workers didn’t want to get their hopes up. Still others had no constructive suggestions to offer.

Safety managers realized they needed to build trust in the employees to win them over and get real input. Here are effective steps they took:

1. Demonstrated commitment
They began by assuring workers that this wasn’t just “the initiative of the month.” To communicate the company’s commitment, they put one person, a safety engineer, in charge of finding a solution, and gave him a budget and a time frame.

That person, with management’s backing, acknowledged they’d allowed the situation to go on too long. (Workers had to rappel down the inside of a cooling tower to conduct maintenance.)

2. Started small
Workers were still skeptical, so the safety engineer decided to start small – find just one worker who would help.

In this case, the engineer decided to review cooling tower work orders to see if there was some way to make his point stick – a near miss, perhaps, or complaints. Something to show the benefits of change to the workers’ themselves – if possible, using the workers’ own words.

But he got a surprise. At the bottom of a stack of forgotten papers, he found a maintenance person’s hand-sketched solution dating from a year ago. The sketch wasn’t perfect, but it had potential. More important, it gave him an opening to start a discussion.

3. Got the ball rolling
The safety engineer met with the maintenance staff and showed them the sketch (drawn by someone who no longer worked for the company). Some recalled seeing it before; others held back. Their attitude seemed to be, “Why are you showing us this now?”

He kept pressing on, asking for workers’ input and prodding them to draw up their own solutions. He met with those who seemed most interested one-on-one. Soon he had a few “converts” willing to help. They drew up a series of potential solutions.

4. Translated criticism
He gathered the entire maintenance staff together to review the ideas. “Management will never go for it” and “That’ll never work” were among the negative comments. The engineer tried to rephrase the negatives into positives, such as, “You have cost concerns?” or “You think this can be more effective if …?”

That strategy worked. The workers saw it as a professional challenge – and people like to solve problems. Workers started asking dozens of questions about how this could work, and considering all the angles.

A solution the group agreed upon: a series of ladders and platforms inside the cooling towers. Further study found it wouldn’t affect tower performance, and the cost was within budget.

Bonus: With one problem solved, the team kept its momentum going. They tackled the next fall-protection issue and then the one after that – a process that led to a year-long program to resolve fall-protection issues facility-wide.

Luke Mazur, Safety Supervisor, Marathon Petroleum Co., Detroit and Kevin Wilcox, principal, LJB, Inc., Dayton, OH

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