All-Hands Safety Culture: Yes, Including the Back-Office!

All-Hands Safety Culture: Yes, Including the Back-Office!Sure, someone from accounting may never have set foot in the warehouse or plant outside of the plant tour they took during orientation when they were hired. So they may be wondering why it would be important to be involved in something that applies only to the plant side.

But exempting back-office employees from active participation in the safety culture is a mistake on many levels. First, it sends a loud and clear message that safety is not part and parcel of the overall organizational culture. It’s not “who we are,” because if it were, it would show up anywhere we look in the organization. [content_protector password=”ahsc” identifier=”ahsc”]

Second (and related), it communicates that safety isn’t for everyone – that what happens in the office is different than what happens in the plant. Such an outlook tends to create unnecessary silos and divisions between employees in the plant and those in the office. FCTC Online

In one sense, it’s of course true that there is a difference in activities. And there are more opportunities to get hurt in the plant than in the office. But omitting office personnel from participation in the wider safety culture reinforces the common belief among office employees that they are somehow “above” what happens in the plant. They are, after all, doing the really important work of keeping the facility running!

Just in case you were wondering, yes, that last comment was stated with tongue firmly in cheek. But the lack of awareness among office personnel that they are in a support role, not a primary role, is remarkable. It often doesn’t occur to them that the employees who are actually making money for the company are the ones in the control room, in the maintenance shop, on the assembly line, or on the forklift. As such they come to view their “office world” as an entity in its own right rather than as a support function of what happens out on the floor or in the yard. And that has an impact on how they make decisions, whether business decisions or decisions around safety.

10-things-safety-culture-change-planAnd by the way, this problem is not limited to the back office. It can also plague employees at the corporate headquarters of an organization. Several years ago I helped a natural-gas company train and develop its supervisors and managers on leadership skills. Part of that training included a “business acumen” piece during which the participants learned how the organization makes its money.  It was an eye-opening experience especially for the corporate managers who had never been to a plant.  They were placed in the same session as the plant supervisors and managers for the duration of that training, and what they learned was invaluable.

One of the IT managers who attended approached me afterwards to thank me.  His comment was: “We never really understood our role as a support function before this, and that has resulted in a wrong direction for the IT department, which in turn has led to some bad decision-making. We were trying to be a smaller scale version of a Microsoft IT shop and looking for all the latest and greatest technology for the corporate office. What we should have been doing instead is figuring out how to better enable the plant to hit its production numbers with the technology they are using!”

On the safety side, I received a number of similar comments from other corporate managers who had attended and said that until the training they hadn’t really understood the safety risks that the plant supervisors and managers had to deal with on a daily basis, and that the networking opportunity with the plant side was invaluable and a real learning experience for them.

So how exactly should office personnel participate in the safety culture? I’ll suggest some ways of making this happen for both individual contributors and corporate managers in our next article. But that’s all for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.

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About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.