Moving Beyond Physical Safety – Changing the Work Climate

Nov 16, 2014

Only when employees believe that the environment in which they work is “safe” will they risk fully engaging with their work. That may sound like common sense, but its less common than many companies believe. Management has to realize that employees hearing it is safe and believing it is safe are not necessarily the same. If managements’ actions do not support their words, signs, or posters then no amount of telling is going to make employees believe. And although you may have a physically safe workplace, subtle incivility and animosity might make it an emotionally and psychologically unsafe environment thus inhibiting full engagement.

An employees’ willingness to voice his or her ideas is the basis of psychological safety. People implicitly and often unconsciously decide when to speak up, and when to hold back their thoughts. There are a number of reasons people do this, but they often rest upon their belief about authority or management in the workplace.

I will address how to create this environment later, but wanted to use this post as an opportunity to stress the importance of focusing on more than physical safety alone.

If an employee’s ideas are met with criticism, belittlement, sarcasm, or other negative responses, then those ideas, concerns, and suggestions for improvement will remain private. Within a traditional safety system, a psychologically unsafe workplace keeps employees from reporting accidents, incidents and near misses. Fear of blame, punishment or other negative outcomes keep accidents hidden, unless they are too big to hide.

In an environment where employees are encouraged to report all incidents and are not blamed for doing so, they gradually learn that bringing these failures forward is not as risky as they thought and so is safe – psychologically. As employees expand their perspective regarding this safety they begin testing then using their voice in other areas as well. In other words by focusing on the physical safety in the workplace, speaking up expands into a cultural message that the workplace is safe psychologically and emotionally as well as physically. This expansion of employee “voice” is a primary building block for organizational innovation and knowledge sharing.

A safe workplace should not be limited to physical safety. In a workplace that depends upon physical labor, then physical safety is perhaps the major or perhaps the only safety factor considered by management. However in a knowledge creation environment, where the production of knowledge or innovation is key then psychological and emotional safety are likely greater factors in engagement than physical safety.

This concept should be a call for safety professionals to move beyond focusing on physical hazards alone and recognize the need to include focusing on psychological and emotional safety if they wish to advance the profession within knowledge creating workplaces.