By Karyn Price, ARM, CHSP, Coverys Senior Risk Consultant

Organizations looking to reduce injuries and improve safety performance may want to consider building employee engagement. An August 2009 Gallup study conducted by Harter, Schmidt, Killham and Agrawal discovered that some of the benefits of engaged employees include:
  • 48% fewer safety incidents
  • 41% fewer patient safety incidents
  • 37% decrease in absenteeism
  • 25% decrease in turnover
  • 21% increase in productivity
  • 22% improved profitability1
Yet, lack of engagement can be costly. In addition to the Gallup study, a study conducted for the Society of Human Resource Management determined that the average cost of a safety incident for an engaged employee is $63 versus $392 for a disengaged employee. Further, engaged employees are 5 times less likely to have a safety incident and 7 times less likely to have a lost time incident.2 Focusing on engaging employees in your safety process may not only reduce your organization’s worker’s compensation premium, but those efforts could also be the beginning of better performance in other areas as well!

What is employee engagement and how does it differ from employee involvement–a concept that safety professionals have advocated for years? Involvement is defined as the act of taking part in an activity, event or situation. In many organizations, the extent of employee involvement with safety includes participation with annual safety training and a select few employees participating on a monthly safety committee. On the other hand, employee engagement is defined as the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. Emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about working safe, and when employees care, they use discretionary effort. Discretionary effort is the level of effort employees give if they want to go above and beyond the minimum required.

From a safety standpoint, an engaged employee is one who is fully absorbed by, and enthusiastic about, safety and so takes positive action to strengthen the organization’s safety process. This means an engaged employee uses a mechanical lift when needed even when it means taking the time to walk to another unit to retrieve it; takes the time to pull the bed away from the wall when providing patient care; or makes time to report a safety hazard or cleans up a spill on the floor, even if he did not cause the spill. Getting employees engaged in your safety process means getting them to believe, participate and willingly contribute to its success. Engagement means moving beyond the mindset of involvement or “do as you’re told to do” to engaging employees to “help us create a culture of safety excellence.”

Determine the level of employee involvement

How can you determine whether your employees are engaged? One of the best ways is to conduct the “2 a.m. test.” That is, how safe do employees work at two o’clock in the morning when no one is around and no managers are around? Even if no one will know, do employees follow safe procedures because it’s the right thing to do? In a culture where employees are actively engaged with the safety process, the answer to that question is likely to be yes. If the answer is no, then actively building employee engagement may be the solution. Safety management is only as effective as the level of employee buy-in and support, so engaging employees helps breathe life into the safety process. Building opportunities for employee to engage with the safety process is key to improving safety performance. The following strategies can be used to build employee engagement and start on the path to continuous safety improvement.

Create and consistently communicate a safety vision

All humans have a basic need to believe in something. If employees do not believe in the cause of a safe work environment, they will put their hands and feet to work (compliance) but not their hearts and minds (engagement). In a healthcare organization, employees hear a lot about the importance of patient safety but often nothing regarding their own safety.

Engagement begins when senior leaders demonstrate care and concern for employees. Instead of talking about safety in terms of frequency and severity of accidents, think about humanizing safety by creating and communicating a safety vision statement. A safety vision statement must communicate both the purpose and values of the organization and motivate employees to do their best when it comes to workplace safety. Leadership must challenge employees to get involved with safety because it’s a worthwhile cause with a good rationale for pursuing it. When an organization pursues safety excellence for altruistic and humanistic reasons, they tend to win over the hearts and minds of even the most reluctant employees.

Ensure employees have a sense of feeling valued and involved

One of the strongest drivers of employee engagement is ensuring employees have a sense of feeling valued and involved. When it comes to workplace safety, there are several ways to accomplish this. One is to ensure a process exists so that employees are actively engaged in voicing potential safety concerns or ideas for improvement. Once concerns or ideas are received, management must act rapidly on the information provided. It is also important that the employee making the suggestion receives timely feedback, even if the answer is “sorry, we can’t do that and here’s why.” When timely action is taken by management and two-way communication occurs, employees not only feel heard but they start to understand that the organization truly appreciates and values their involvement and contributions.

Involve employees in decision making

Involving employees with safety committees, teams or problem-solving groups can provide opportunities for participation, but if the groups or activities don’t offer meaningful involvement, they can actually create disengagement. For example, if committees are led by management, and employees are only token members, the results can be counterproductive. Employees are in a unique position to not only identify barriers to working safe, but they are also ideally positioned to identify solutions. When employees are able to participate in decision making, they gain a sense of trust, ownership and pride. And an added benefit is that employees are more likely to support changes in which they have had a say in the decision making.

Focus on recognizing effort

If your organization practices an “ignore/busted” strategy, you may be ensuring a surface level of safety compliance yet not actually engaging employees. What is the “ignore/busted” strategy? It occurs when managers do not acknowledge when employees are working safely but then immediately “bust” the first employee doing something wrong. This strategy may change behavior, but typically, only as long as the employee is being observed. For example, how do most people react when they are driving just over the speed limit and they see an officer clocking radar? Most people apply their brakes until they are again compliant with the speed limit. Then what happens when the officer disappears from the rearview mirror? They breathe a sigh of relief because they avoided getting “busted” and speed back up again. 

Punishment and negative reinforcement may result in temporary compliance, but it will not drive the emotional commitment necessary to engage employees with your safety process. If your company does not have a formal safety recognition process in place, consider creating one. Safety recognition is beneficial because it rewards employee efforts to work safely and helps infuse those behaviors into the culture. Managers and employees begin to learn from each other, and as a whole, the organization can learn what behaviors are most valued. Your process does not have to be extravagant as long as it enables genuine, timely and relevant recognition that is simple to track and evaluate.

Driving employee engagement can be fun and challenging. It’s never one strategy or another that drives continuous safety improvement. It’s typically one strategy and another and another and then yet another. Organizations with high employee engagement have an advantage that many others lack. Done well, employee engagement can kick your safety process into high gear and set the stage for continuous safety improvement.

  1. James K. Harter, Frank L. Schmidt, Emily A. Killham, and Sangeeta Agrawal, “Q12 Meta- Analysis: The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes,” Gallup,   2009,, 04/15/15.
  2. R.J. Vance, “Employee Engagement and Commitment,” Society for Human Resource Management, 2006. nlineReport.pdf, 04/15/15.

This post is a work product of Coverys’ Workers’ Compensation Services. This information is intended to provide general guidelines for educational purposes. It is not intended and should not be construed as legal or medical advice. Please consult with your loss prevention consultant/professional with respect to the use or development of your own safety management program.