September 2014

As chief elected officer of the Society, ASSE's president promotes the advancement of the Society and the safety profession, and represents ASSE before members, other relevant professional societies and various governmental agencies. Professional Safety shares his latest thoughts on the Society, the profession and its practice.

Read past messages in the President's Message Archive.

President's Message - March 2005

Employee perceptions of the safety culture dictate their behavior and, thus, their results. Culture determines whether any element of an SH&E program will be effective.

2004-2005 ASSE President Gene Barfield, CSP

The Trust Factor

Do your employees trust your management team? Recent surveys suggest that the answer is probably "not so much." Many employers are facing declining levels of employee trust, which is a major threat to competitiveness. Strong evidence suggests that employee trust directly affects total business performance-in both productivity and safety.

Employee participation and perception needs more attention in SH&E management. Much has been learned about what determines the effectiveness of a safety system and most would agree that culture is key. Since employee perceptions of the safety culture dictate their behavior-and, thus, their results-culture determines whether any element of the SH&E program will be effective. But just how should a company best measure safety performance and assess its safety culture?

I recently attended "Techniques of Safety Management," a seminar led by Dr. Dan Petersen, to learn about effective measurement methods. He stressed four key concepts:

  1. Don't use accident-based measurements as a performance indicator.

  2. Use audit results only when positive correlation exists between the audit and safety results over time and large numbers.

  3. Use a properly constructed perception survey as a primary measure and diagnostic tool.

  4. Use behavior sampling/activity goals as the primary motivational measurement tool.

I was particularly intrigued by Petersen's discussion of employee perception surveys. Earlier in my career, I had been involved in employee surveys and I remember the surprise expressed by department managers when they discovered that their employees had different (usually less-positive) opinions regarding management's commitment to safety. Petersen noted that these instruments can help an organization identify critical safety issues and detect key differences in management and employee views regarding the effectiveness of SH&E programs. He also reported that they can reveal true levels of employee trust and emphasized that analysis of survey results can be used to craft a plan of action to rekindle trust between employees and management.

After the seminar, I conducted a Google search on the phrase "employee safety perception surveys." It returned more than 560,000 listings. Review of many of these links indicated that a properly crafted employee perception survey can unearth hidden or undetected feelings of distrust regarding management initiatives and is an excellent tool to help a company develop a plan of action to close the gap between employee and management perceptions.

With my interest sparked, I immediately began to craft my own employee perception survey. However, as I read through the literature seeking information on survey development and construction, I quickly learned that self-developed surveys and in-house analysis of the results can make matters worse. To produce reliable information, surveys must be created by trained professionals. Questions must be carefully worded in order to achieve an in-depth correlation of the employee's true opinion. To protect employee confidentiality, surveys should be distributed, collected and tabulated by an unbiased third party. In addition, data must be analyzed by trained specialists.

My employer uses employee feedback as one tool to ensure continuous improvement. As company leaders continue to refine our safety management system, I will be diligent in my efforts to use employee safety perception surveys as a tool to improve our safety management processes and strengthen our commitment to excellence.

Gene Barfield, CSP