Posted: April 19, 2009
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Article SummaryTough economic times are tough on safety. Workers may be distracted or distressed, while safety budgets (like all budgets) may be reduced. Tough economic times are also tough on safety controversies. Not only do workers have real reasons to suspect that they might be more endangered than usual; they also have less patience and forbearance, and perhaps more motivation to project their economic worries onto an on-the-job safety situation. This short column for industrial hygienists offers some tips on ways to adjust safety risk communication when the economic situation is bad.

Recession Risk Communication:
How to Focus on Safety
When Employees Are Demoralized

This is the eighteenth in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the April 2009 issue of The Synergist, pp. 31, 36.

It’s a good bet that the current economic meltdown has affected morale at your place of business. Here are some obvious but important truths:

  • Many employees fear for their jobs.
  • Many employees have lost money in their retirement savings and in the value of their homes; some have lost their homes, or fear losing their homes.
  • Many employees face economic problems at home – for example, a spouse, child or parent who has been laid off.

Even if they’re personally OK so far, many employees are worried – or depressed – about economic conditions nationwide and worldwide.

The following truths are less obvious, but they are crucial for industrial hygienists right now.

First, employees who are stressed about the economy – or anything else – are likelier to make safety mistakes. At a minimum, they may be distracted by their economic concerns. At the worst, they may be too depressed to want to be careful; some might even feel suicidal. (This is a dirty little secret of industrial safety:  An unknown but probably significant percentage of employee “carelessness” is suicidal behavior in disguise.)

Second, employees who are stressed about the economy are likelier to worry about other people’s safety mistakes. This is partly just good sense; people realize that others’ distraction or depression constitutes a safety hazard. It’s partly psychological projection, focusing energy on an acceptable worry (whether Joe or Cindy is violating safety rules) instead of an unacceptable one (whether I’ll lose my job or my house). And it’s partly a result of diminished forbearance. When people are on edge, they get into quarrels more easily; they file complaints about problems they would have shrugged off or handled informally in better times.

Third, employees are reacting to the economic stress on your company. Layoffs increase employees’ anxiety about getting laid off themselves, their sadness and disorientation about the loss of their friends, and the genuine job burdens they’re carrying. Other sorts of belt-tightening also exacerbate employees’ stress by adding to their worries and increasing the genuine risks they’re bearing.

Addressing Fears

Companies routinely deny that belt-tightening affects safety, but both data and logic say otherwise. Of course you try to cut fat and not muscle. You do everything you can to minimize the extent to which your EHS mission is compromised. So if your budget has been cut, say, 10 percent, that doesn’t mean the workplace is 10 percent more dangerous. But it does mean the workplace is at least a little more dangerous. When you ask for a bigger budget, your goal is to improve performance. When you accept a smaller budget, is it rational to imagine that performance isn’t damaged?

How can risk communication help you cope with this situation? The following are practical tips for addressing workers’ concerns.

Accept the truth. Acknowledge to yourself that economic conditions have affected your workplace: that morale is down, stress is up, and the workplace is at least a little more dangerous. You can’t cope with these realities if you are busy denying them. As part of this process of accepting unpleasant truths, take stock of your own morale and your own stress level.
Face the fears. Acknowledge the morale/stress problems to your workforce – that many employees are suffering economically, that economic worries may be distracting some employees from safe work practices, and that some are more worried than usual about safety. That’s a little tricky. You don’t want to accuse anybody of being demoralized. So you need to deflect the accusation from “you” to somebody else. “This is a hard time for a lot of us.” “Some people may be having more trouble concentrating than usual.” “I talked to a second-shift worker yesterday who told me she was really worried that safety might be compromised.”
Acknowledge the risks. Acknowledge that workplace morale/stress problems really can affect safety – that employees who are more worried about safety than they used to be have a good point, that your level of safety concern has gone up too. This is the toughest of my recommendations. You can’t do it without management’s OK, and you may not be able to get management’s OK. (It may even be dangerous to ask.) But it is extremely difficult to mitigate the possible effects of economic stress on employee safety without acknowledging that the risk is real.
Focus on wellness. Treat economic stress as a high-priority employee health issue in its own right. Coordinate with HR and anyone else involved in the company’s wellness efforts. If your company isn’t doing much about employee stress reduction, start a program. If you have a program, grow it – even if you have to let some other things go. In addition to helping employees alleviate “normal” stress, make sure your program tries to identify employees with off-the-charts stress for medical help. Frame the new or expanded program explicitly as a response to economic conditions. Validate that of course many people are feeling more stressed than they were when the economy was booming, and of course the company wants to do what it can to help. The company is part of the problem when it has to cut back programs or lay off people; it intends to be part of the solution, too. (Acknowledging the first half of this sentence makes the second half a lot more credible.)
Link safety to financial worries. Step up the frequency of your safety warnings and reminders, and link them explicitly to employees’ financial concerns. After a really bad economic day for the company (or the country), for example, you might say something like this: “Given what happened yesterday, people may have a lot on their minds today. That’s when accidents happen all too easily. So take an extra beat to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. And try to help the people around you keep their safety focus, too.” The day after really bad economic news is also a good day for a safety drill.
Help employees vent. Create opportunities for people to let off steam about their money worries. This helps in at least two ways. First, worries are less distracting when people have had a chance to talk about them, so a chance to vent about feelings of financial insecurity makes it easier to stay focused on safe work practices. (Some people won’t want to vent; if they’d rather try to put their worries out of their minds, you should respect their choice.) The second benefit of venting about the economy is that it reduces the effect of projection. If people are fretting over minor safety issues because they’re really worried about money, a chance to talk about their money worries will help reattach their anxiety to its actual source.
Use a personal approach. For the same reasons, consider starting conversations with individual employees by gently inquiring about how things are going financially. Suppose someone has come to your office to register an EHS concern:  He thinks the new solvent is giving him headaches. Before you take his formal complaint, spend a minute or two commiserating with each other about layoffs and 401(k) values. When the time comes to talk about the solvent, anxiety or outrage that is grounded in economic conditions will have reattached to economic conditions, and the health and safety complaint may be voiced more mildly and constructively than it would otherwise have been. Talking about shared financial woes before you upbraid an employee for a safety rule infraction can have a similarly beneficial effect on that interaction.
Use common sense. This final recommendation isn’t really about risk communication, but it’s too important to leave out: Take commonsense steps to reduce employees’ economic stress and its effects on safety. Insofar as you have input to the timing of layoffs, for example, urge management to create “safe” periods during which the company guarantees job security. “There may be more layoffs between now and June 1, and perhaps again in the fall, but from June 1 till October 1 there will be no layoffs, period.” Scheduled periods of low stress can help people get through the periods of high stress. And insofar as you have input to the timing of high-risk activities (such as tricky equipment maintenance procedures), get them scheduled for the low-stress periods.

Keeping Employees Safe

You can doubtless think of other ways to help keep employees safe during tough economic times. The key is to get clear in your own head that tough times affect morale and morale affects safety, and then to get these truths into your employee risk communication messaging.

Copyright © 2009 by Peter M. Sandman

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