Leaders with responsibility for safety often espouse safety as a value rather than a priority because priorities change based on operational requirements and values do not. It makes sense to value a workers safety and health. Valuing safety is the pinnacle of a strong safety culture. Unfortunately, we often stop short of defining exactly what that means. Saying “safety is a value” is an abstract principle that is difficult enough for us to imagine much less a front-line employee to understand, envision or conceive. What does it mean to value safety?
Commonly accepted definitions state that values are our personal bottom line. Values direct everything we do, the decisions we make, our commitment to goals. Our values provide answers to questions before we ask. Values set expectations for all employees from the top to the bottom. Values are unambiguous unlike the term "safety" which can mean different things to different people. If you believe every injury is preventable, then you know what to do when your Personal Protective Equipment shows signs of wear or the machine guard is out of alignment. If you value your co-worker, then you know what to do if you observe a co-worker struggling to lift a heavy item. Do you allow the new employee to work alone on the first day because you are short handed? If you believe safety is a value, then you know what to do.
Making safety a value rather than a priority is not an easy undertaking. We can start by giving employees a concrete example of what “safety as a value” means. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath identified 6 characteristics of messages that stick: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Story. For employees to understand safety as a value they need to see it in their mind's eye. Give them concrete images and actionable terms.
Values are the guiding light in the whirlwind of activity and competing demands that bombard us every day. Set yourself apart and establish yourself as a safety leader by defining what it means to "value safety".
How do you define “safety as a value?”