This article is part of our Back To Basics series, which highlights fundamental principles of environmental, health, and safety management. The series is written for EHS professionals new to this industry, as well as experienced pros who want to keep their skills fresh.
Look around you: If you work in the average organization, only 32% of your employees are actively engaged at work, according to a 2022 Gallup report. The majority (68%) are not engaged, which means they show up at work every day but don't give it their best.
Managers, on the other hand, have a more optimistic view of employee engagement: 81% believe their employees are engaged, according to a separate employee engagement study by Randstad.
Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what employees are saying and what their managers hear — and that’s particularly problematic when it comes to safety.
What is employee engagement?
In simple terms, employee engagement means that workers are committed to the organization and its objectives. Engaged employees feel connected to their employer, are highly motivated, and put forth their best effort at work.
When we talk about employee engagement with safety, we’re referring to employees who have a clear understanding of the organization’s safety objectives and are personally invested in achieving those outcomes.
For example, an engaged construction worker puts on their fall protection harness every time they work at height — not just when a supervisor is watching. An engaged factory worker is diligent about following lockout/tagout procedures and ensuring others do the same.
Is employee engagement the same as employee satisfaction?
Employee engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction. Satisfaction has to do with how an employee feels about their job, while engagement is about giving their best effort at work. Although satisfaction is an important element of employee engagement, an employee can be satisfied with their job and still be disengaged.
You can probably think of at least one worker who shows up late every day, does the bare minimum, and punches out the minute the clock hits 5PM. While this person might feel satisfied with their job, they’re certainly not what you would consider an engaged employee.
Why is employee engagement important for safety?
Employee engagement directly affects safety outcomes. Employees who are actively engaged:
- are more productive
- put forth greater effort
- stay with the company longer
- practice safe work behaviors
- encourage others to work safely
- comply with safety directives
- report issues and concerns
Most importantly, highly engaged employees are less likely to have an accident or get injured on the job than those with low engagement.
Employee engagement can also have a tremendous impact on your business’ bottom line. Engaged workers are safe and efficient, and thus are able to produce a better quality product. When customers are satisfied with your product, they are more likely to buy from and recommend your company, which leads to higher profits. In turn, companies post higher profits and shareholders see better returns.
Today, employee engagement is considered a key ingredient of an effective safety program. Employee consultation and participation are part of the requirements for standards like ISO 45001. Employee engagement metrics may also be part of a company’s ESG reporting under the “S”, or “social”, dimension.
How is safety engagement measured?
Surveys are the most common way to measure safety engagement. These surveys typically ask employees to rate things like whether safety expectations are clear, whether their supervisor cares about their wellbeing, and whether their fellow employees are committed to safety. Other tools that can be used to measure safety engagement include pulse surveys, stay/exit interviews, and Net Promoter Scores (NPS).
How to engage employees with safety
Here are six strategies to engage employees with safety, backed by research:
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
As with most relationships, good communication is the foundation of an engaged workforce. Research shows that companies that communicate effectively are 4x times as likely to report high levels of employee engagement.
Engagement is all about working toward a common goal. For that to happen, employers and workers need to be on the same page. Employees become engaged when they understand the company’s safety mission, and how their actions connect to this mission. That can only happen through clear and consistent communication.
2. Provide opportunities for growth and learning.
According to an SHRM study, 30% of employees said they consider opportunities for learning and personal growth ‘very important’. However, only 30% were happy with the opportunities available to them at their current organization. Another survey found that 40% of employees who don’t receive the necessary training will leave within their first year.
Employers can foster engagement by providing ongoing opportunities for training and professional development. When it comes to safety, it’s not just about teaching someone to perform a task — it’s about equipping them with the knowledge and skills to perform their jobs safely. When you empower employees to work safely and confidently, you’ll reap the rewards of fewer accidents and more productive and satisfied workers.
3. Give feedback and recognition.
Research shows a strong correlation between regular feedback and employee engagement: 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week, compared to 18% of employees with low engagement.
What’s more, 69% of employees say they would work harder if they were appreciated according to data from Socialcast. In short, employees need to see how their efforts contribute to the success of the safety program, and the organization as a whole.
4. Solicit (and act on) employee feedback.
According to Gallup, only 30% of employees strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work. That means the majority of workers don’t feel that their voices are being heard.
In addition to giving feedback, employers can foster engagement by accepting and acting on employee feedback. When it comes to safety, workers need to be able to voice concerns without fear of retaliation. But it doesn’t stop there. Workers also need to see that their opinions count. If employees voice concerns and management does nothing, employees will become disengaged with the safety program.
5. Commit to safety from the top down.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Leadership sets the tone”. According to Gallup’s State of the American Manager report, employees supervised by highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged than those supervised by disengaged managers.
Here’s what that means for safety: If your leaders aren’t fully committed to safety, your employees won’t be either. That goes for front-line supervisors, all the way up to C-suite executives.
6. Don’t ignore mental health.
When we think about safety, most of us think about things like preventing injuries and illnesses. But today, scientists and safety professionals alike are beginning to understand the connection between workplace safety and mental health.
Long hours, stressful working conditions, and even lone work can all take a toll on employees’ mental health. In turn, this can lead to employees “checking out” or becoming disengaged. For this reason, many companies have started making mental health a pillar of their health and safety programs.
When it comes to safety, employee engagement is vital. Highly engaged workers are more productive and less likely to have an accident than those with low engagement, which directly impacts your business’ bottom line.
By following the tips above, you can foster engagement and create a strong culture of safety. Next, read about the importance of capturing real-time employee observations.