Really…Can you use “safety” and “innovation” in the same sentence?

Dec 12, 2015

So how can a traditional safety program be the lever to create a workplace that encourages engagement and innovation? If done correctly the ideal environmental health safety and sustainability (EHS&S) management system not only opens the door to innovation, but also becomes the method to model, enable, and encourage innovation.

We interviewed top management at a number of Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) sites. These managers noticed that once a strong safety culture was in place employees were willing to step up and identify problems not just within the domain of safety where it started, but in other domains throughout the company as well. Some managers described the collective behavior as more collaborative. The “safety” ownership the employees had developed expanded into a larger container of “job” ownership.


Employees start with incremental learning behaviors as they test the waters. They ask questions, seek help, experiment with new ideas, and perhaps ask for feedback. These behaviors are innate to our natural human tendency to engage with work. In fact two of the most powerful motivators for employees, according to Daniel Pink are the ability to work autonomously, and develop mastery. These motivators are highly dependent upon those incremental learning behaviors.

By starting gradually employees are really testing how management, co-workers and the culture in general confront these learning behaviors, the precursors to engagement and innovation. Are the employees encouraged to bring safety issues forward or are they treated as incompetent, ignorant or “boat rockers”? If they are, they quickly “learn” to hold back on these learning behaviors. The preservation of personal image is more important to an employee than the organization, if that organization doesn’t approve of such behaviors. The cost to the organization is an employee withholding an unsafe issue or mistake critical to the process. In other words incidents are hidden unless they are too big to hide.
Other employees may just sit and observe while some employees test the learning behaviors. If those employees testing the water are treated poorly, or if the culture responds with, “keep quiet,” then they will also keep quiet. On the other hand if they observe and believe they will not be emotionally or psychologically punished for asking questions, taking risks, or making mistakes (or admitting them), they quickly learn that the culture is psychologically safe. The spiral in creating a psychologically unsafe or safe culture goes both ways. Reinforce the negative with toxic attitudes and as Richard Knowles says, “the network freezes up and will eventually die.” Reinforce the idea that “learning is safe here” and things get progressively better.

Of course, most workplaces are not black and white. But you need to determine if you have a culture where the psychologically safest thing for employees to do is just keep your mouth shut, keep your eyes on your own work, glance over your shoulder regularly, and bide your time, at least until a better opportunity comes along. Hopefully that better opportunity isn’t your competition, because in a psychologically unsafe workplace your best talent probably has an updated resume and a copy of the classified ads in their desk drawer.

By allowing employees an opportunity to bring forward safety incidents (admitting to mistakes) or identify hazards, they can test that water. Examine your culture. When an incident occurs is the employee treated like a villain within the organization or a victim of a flawed system? If the villain mentality prevails, even if subtle, then you have people holding back in all areas of the workplace. An employee at a VPP site once told me that it was clear, “if people are holding back safety issues, you know they are holding back quality and other issues as well.”

If you create an environment where people are encouraged to discuss safety concerns and if you treat employees involved in incidents as victims of a flawed system, or as Sidney Dekker labels the second victim, rather than villains you will slowly build a culture that embraces engagement and innovation.

This shift in mindset may be difficult but is essential in creating this next level of safety. Remember, it is a process and through the process the shift will occur. Like a flywheel, once spinning it becomes much easier and moves with little effort.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at