10 Reasons Why a Safety Perception Survey Should be Your First
Safety perception surveys are essential safety performance measurement tools. For more than 40 years renowned safety leaders such as Dan Petersen have advocated their use. Many times Petersen has been quoted as saying, “there is no better predictor of safety performance than a safety perception survey”. Surveys reveal information critical to safety improvement that is not revealed by other methods of measurement such as auditing. The purpose of this article is to explain why safety perception surveys should be considered your company’s first safety performance measurement option.
Today, incident statistics and safety system audits are the two methods of measurement most commonly used to assess company safety performance. As with all methods of performance measurement, there are pros and cons with respect to their use. For example, incident statistics are not forward looking and therefore not predictive of future safety performance. They are often used to evaluate whether or not a company’s past incident rates warrant future work contracts. This can pressure companies to find creative ways to keep the numbers low. One of the biggest limitations to the system audit measurement approach is that only a few performance indicators such as investigation, inspection, etc. are incorporated into the audit protocols. Research into what really drives safety performance confirms that other indicators of equal or greater importance such as management credibility, employee satisfaction, autonomy, work-life balance, etc. significantly influence safety performance.
In spite of all company efforts to improve worker health and safety, the persistent high number of serious incidents and fatalities suggests we still have a great deal of preventive work to do. Given the limitations of the two methods of measurement explained above, it is hard to understand why the safety profession has been so committed to them as primary measures of safety success. Companies recognized as having “best in class” safety systems, all obtain their best improvement information from their employees. Safety perception surveys are generally used to collect this information. This article will help explain what these companies know that others may not. Here are ten key reasons why companies should consider safety perception surveys as a prime measurement option.
ONE: Safety Perception Surveys Assess Human Factors/Culture
In-depth investigations into serious incidents often point to unsupportive health and safety cultures as the root underlying cause of safety system failure. Safety perception surveys can help identify the human factors that adversely affect the corporate safety culture. A strong positive culture is needed in order to support an effective health and safety program. Companies waste a great deal of time and resources attempting to successfully implement traditional safety elements only to fail because the culture of their organization was not supportive. For example, if management do not demonstrate or in fact feel a strong commitment to health and safety, binders of safety policies and posters exclaiming commitment will not change the basic fact that commitment is lacking. This fact will negatively affect all efforts to succeed in implementing a safety program.
Safety perception survey and audit processes are complimentary. Typically audits assess what is in place such as are safety meetings being held and safety inspections being conducted. Safety perception surveys assess how effective they are, as perceived by the employees and provide insight into how they might be improved. Certainly there is some overlap between the two types of methods of measurement but the two should be considered both necessary and complimentary. Companies that only audit will identify weakness in safety program elements but will not identify the underlying human factors that work against safety program success. Together, the measurement methods can provide companies with a better picture of what needs to be done to continue to improve.
TWO: Anonymously, Employees Feel Free to Express Their Opinions
During the audit process, many employees feel uneasy about the interviews being lead by co-workers or an external consultant. Because auditors are required to maintain employee confidentiality, they have to be careful what interview information they reveal to management. Auditors cannot risk revealing interview information to management that could ever come back on an interviewee. The interview information they reveal therefore is limited. On the other hand, when employees respond to surveys anonymously, they feel free to express themselves with no fear of reprisal. In this way companies receive employee unconstrained perceptions.
Beware of surveys that do not solicit employee comments as there is generally a need to later go back to employees and ask them to justify and validate their question scores. This is an expensive process. When employee comments are collected by survey, there is little need to later interview employees in order to validate their question scores.
THREE: Surveys Reveal Employee Perceptions and Perceptions are Reality
Safety perception surveys identify employee perceptions which are their realities of the workplace’s health and safety culture. Some cynics suggest these perceptions are not important because they can be incorrect. However, incorrect or not, employee perceptions are an employees’ reality and they do influence employee behaviour. For example, if employees believe senior management does not wear proper PPE at the worksites, to them, that belief is their reality. Their perception could be false if company policy allows for PPE exceptions at certain distances from the work. What really matters is that the employee reality will influence them to focus less on wearing PPE as apparently it is not a management priority. Employee perceptions are important and should never be dismissed. Once these perceptions are revealed, companies have an opportunity to later influence or change them.
FOUR: Surveys More Accurately Quantify Employee Responses
Audits typically use a less accurate “all-or-none” approach to scoring employee interviews. All-or-none scoring requires the interviewer to interpret the interviewee’s response and then choose between a score of “Yes” or “No” or 0% and 100% positive. At best, the response provides a “guesstimate” of the employees’ response.
Surveys typically allow the respondent to respond to questions on a more accurate Likert scoring scale such as the scale below.
This method of scoring employee perceptions helps to ensure opportunities for improvement are not lost or concealed by an imprecise method of scoring. It is also important to note that there are surveys that employ all-or-none scoring. Our all-or-none scoring caution also applies to these surveys.
FIVE: Surveys can Reveal Perception Gaps
The perception gap between workers, supervisory and management is important to measure. If question scores indicate that there is no gap between scores of all employee groups, strong alignment among them is indicated. If there are large gaps in scoring, misalignment in perceptions is indicated which generally suggests there are communication issues that need to be addressed.
SIX: Survey Comments can Identify Specific Improvement Opportunities by Location
As previously stated, employee survey comments should be collected and assessed. A good survey database should have the ability to protect a respondent’s identity but also reveal where corrective action is warranted (e.g. by department, section, location, etc.) in certain working locations (or other employee group, as discussed below). Employee comments often contain very specific nuggets of preventive information that are uniquely applicable to their area. This gives the company the ability to target specific corrective actions.
SEVEN: Survey Comments can Identify Specific Improvement Opportunities by Employee Group
A properly constructed survey used in conjunction with a good database, allows for the sorting of the question ratings and comments by a number of parameters such as by position, age, etc. This opens the door for management to engage with workers very specifically on issues identified within specific employee groups. For example, newer employees may express a need to improve the new employee orientation and training program. A proper database will have the ability to select employee comments and question scores by specific employee group such as by new employees.
One of the biggest reasons why companies have not conducted a safety perception survey is fear. If your management is afraid of what a safety perception survey may reveal, your company is a prime candidate for using the survey measurement method. Typically it is the management of the company that decides not to conduct a safety perception survey. Their decision may be due to a fear of what they might hear and afraid of what they may later be committed to improving. If this is the reason your management turns down the opportunity to conduct a survey, it is likely your company is one that would benefit most from this measurement approach. Do not let fear dictate the level of safety your company can achieve.
NINE: Cost Effective
Safety perception surveys can be inexpensive to conduct. A do-it-yourself approach is available to companies and that eliminates the need to hire expensive survey consultants. One of the most costly aspects in conducting either an audit or survey is in the collection of employee perceptions. The one on one interview process is painstaking and very expensive. A good survey database allows companies to gather employee perceptions electronically. As many employees can respond at one time as there are computers available. This significantly reduces the costs associated with auditors and/or survey consultants having to gather employee information one employee at a time.
TEN: Making a Real Difference
Most safety professional want to be able to reflect back on their work career and feel they made a difference. They want to be able to say they didn’t just maintain the status quo: they helped make their employer a safer place to work. They want to be able to say they used every tool available to them to help improve safety in their company. The effectiveness of safety programs is really tested when employees are asked to rate them. There is no better test of safety program effectiveness than a safety perception survey that asks employees to rate various aspects of the health and safety program.
It is difficult for companies to conduct safety perception surveys on their own because the infrastructure for surveying is not readily available to them. For them, the most available alternative is to hire an expensive survey consultant to help them survey. This is an expense most companies cannot afford. Some of the larger companies such as ESSO and Dupont have developed their own survey infrastructure that allows them to conduct surveys economically in-house. The survey infrastructure needed is similar to what has already been provided for conducting system audits. Training is needed on how to conduct surveys and to certify survey administrators. A database is needed to share with companies enabling them to collect, manage and report out the data. Governments, safety associations, insurance companies and similar organizations have not adopted or made the survey infrastructure available to companies that would like to benefit from surveying. Compass Health & Safety Ltd. has developed this infrastructure and would gladly share it.
Safety perception surveys are an underutilized method of safety performance measurement. Surveys are complimentary to other methods of safety measurement such as auditing. Best-in-class companies conduct safety perception surveys for a good reason. They are on to a measurement approach that many companies have not yet had the opportunity to benefit from. They realize that they cannot succeed in safety without first engaging with their employees. They value their employee survey responses and that is why they are considered best in class.
Dennis Ryan is the President of Compass Health & Safety Ltd. Compass is a consulting company whose primary services relate to the assessment of health and safety programs typically though system audits and safety perception surveys. Dennis is a graduate of Biological Sciences, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, and the University of Alberta (U of A) Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Certificate programs. During his forty-five year career in health and safety he obtained certifications in safety (CRSP) and occupational hygiene (OHST). Over the last thirty years he instructed various (OHS) courses at the U of A and at other post-secondary institutions. Dennis has written numerous articles that have been published in various health and safety publications in North America such as the CSSE Contact and ASSE Professional Safety magazines. http://compasshealthandsafety.com