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Fostering a Safety Culture

Trustworthy, well-respected management plays a big part

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Regardless of the amount of safety training offered or the standard operating procedures put in place, there are forces beyond a manager’s influence determining whether or not employees will employ proper decision-making at a grain elevator. Most of these [oversights] will have little effect on the overall business yet others may have fatal consequences. The question is how do managers evaluate, address and sway an employee’s behavior one way or another. A research assistant with Iowa State University’s Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering seeks to find a solution to this problem.

Gretchen Mosher’s interest in decision-making in the workplace stems from her professional and academic experiences. She spent her early career working with employees on “risky topics” in food safety. Her pursuits in academia led her to study education as a graduate student, and work toward her PhD in industrial and agricultural technology under Dr. Charlie Hurburgh.

Inspired by a course in agricultural safety, Mosher decided to focus her dissertation on the correlation between the people component of safety and quality management system (QMS) adaption, and dig into the process employees engage in to make positive decisions in an agricultural environment.

“I realized the study of decision-making involved many of the motivation pieces also found in education theory,” Mosher says. “Employees are told why they should act safely, but understanding why they make their final decision choice — that’s the ultimate purpose of my research.”

The connection between quality and safety presented an obvious – yet under studied – focus for her research. Mosher points to Purdue University’s [engulfment tracking] noting grain quality plays a major role in engulfment and entrapments incidents.

“If you have good grain, you don’t need to get in the grain bin,” she says. “Preserving the quality of the grain makes the environment safer for employees.”

Even employees given safety training, made familiar with OSHA standards and who know how to properly perform their jobs make willfully negative choices, but why?

On a psychological level, Mosher cites Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory describing what motivates people to go beyond the scope of basic needs and strive for constant betterment. Safety is identified as one of the physiological foundations of this construct.

“When you look at how employees perceive their marching orders, if [managers] are not taking care of their basic safety needs — the need to feel safe and secure — surely the employee is not going to pursue any of the higher-level organizational quality goals which are then irrelevant if they don’t feel safe,” she says.

For example, if management stressed safety as the organization’s No. 1 priority; however, during demanding circumstances, a supervisor’s message turns to “we need to meet this deadline no matter what,” it contradicts and defeats prior precedent.

“In these specific cases, productivity seems to be the priority, and employee feels less safe,” she explains, compromising their perceptions of consistency and in turn their level of trust.

The role of trust

Trust, Mosher found, is one of the key elements motivating employees to adopt safety and quality procedures.

“Management may not realize the extent of how much of a role perception plays in how they’re viewed by employees,” she says. “A manager may feel like they are trustworthy, but it doesn’t matter how trustworthy they think they are, it’s how the employees feel about them.”

Trust is defined by several characteristics of high trust relationships, including consistency, credibility and communication, resulting in better performance, cooperation and added initiative. The process of building trust, studies have found, is a slow process. It requires many good deeds and acts of proof to build, but one incident betraying this trust will knock a person back to square one.

“[Trustworthiness] is very perceptual,” Mosher says. “It only takes a minor offense. Management may not see as a trust issue while the employees see it otherwise.”

Decision-making is also impacted by management inconsistency. If a policy says one thing, but a manager or supervisor contradicts it: “This is what I’m asking from you (safety), but this is what I want now (a fast load out).” What’s the employee to think?

“The brain has problems resolving that so the employee will do one of three things: they will follow along with orders and disregard conflict; do it safely or not do anything,” she explains.

This uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously is known as cognitive dissonance.

“I think this is an applicable theory — especially with quality,” Mosher says. “If management says, ‘I want all loads accepted no matter how wet they are’ — but they also want quality — will an employee accept it or reject it a load of unsatisfactory corn? Many employees dismissed what they knew ahead of time to keep corn in condition and chose to go with what they’ve been told. Other chose a third option, non-decision, which follows closely with the theory.”

Mosher reached out to the grain handlers to gather evidence.

Research methodology

Three questions guided Mosher’s research:

- Do trust levels affect employee perceptions of safety and quality?

- Are employee perceptions of trust, safety and quality related to the employee’s decision choice in safety and quality decision scenarios?

- What factors do employees use to make safety and quality decisions?

Mosher presented 400 employees at three Midwest grain elevators with a five-point questionnaire developed by a board of safety and grain handling representatives involving realistic safety scenarios to gauge employee decision-making patterns, and to rate their perceptions of upper management and supervisors. Computerized decision simulations presented safety and quality scenarios to participants asking if they would take shortcuts if their supervisors pressured them to do so; and if they would follow directions or take action to better preserve the quality of a stored grain.

Mosher explored two levels of administration – supervisory and management — to determine the different actions employees take when evaluating upper management, who typically have irregular contact with employees and have a limited opportunity to make a good impression, with the supervisors with whom employees have daily contact.

“The perceptions of employees are related to the perception of management,” she says. “If they have positive perception of their supervisor, they do with management too. Management makes the policy, but the supervisor interprets the policy. For the employee the supervisor-management connection is important.”

To measure the results, the hypothetical scenarios were given four decision choices (see Table 1) in a matrix format. This structuring required compromise on the part of the 148 employees who did respondent since “choices were typically viewed very positively under one factor, but very negatively under another.” Using the information contained within the matrix squares employees viewed the information and then selected a decision choice allowing Mosher to view each employee’s decision as well as the information they used to make the choice.

Results of the research

Grain elevator employees were surveyed on their perceptions of trust, safety and quality, and some of the results surprised Mosher.

Many respondents would choose to confront the supervisor or report the supervisor’s unsafe actions to management, both decisions which support long term safety not only for the individual employee, but other employees within the organization as well. In contrast, in regards to quality, the cognitive dissonance-influenced decision to “pass the buck” and leave the decision-making for someone else.

“The low number of participants who chose to take the most prudent choice for promoting high quality grain (to not accept the wet corn) indicates that few employees are willing to defy management orders, even when they know that wet corn will spoil quickly when dumped on an already wet pile,” she notes.

[Insert Table 2 here]

The study also tracked the factors employees used to help them make the safety and quality decision choices. Decision values were assigned to the results by charting how many times the employee viewed their options.

“Based on the assumption that an employee who looks at each square in the decision matrix one time does not use one factor preferentially to make a decision choice, so values above one indicate that specific decision factor is viewed more often when compared with the other factor and values below one show that the specific factor is viewed less than other decision factors,” Mosher explains.

Using this tabulation, in the safety decision scenario, employees tended to look at the safety factor outcomes at a much higher rate than other factors. Supervisor opinion ranked high, indicating increased interest by employees; however, productivity and peer pressure were viewed less often than the other decision factors.

“This was an intriguing and positive finding for the grain handling facilities which participated in the study,” she says.

Although safety and quality perceptions of management showed a significant relationship with the safety and quality decisions, no significant relationship was noted between the decision choices and quality perceptions of the supervisor. It was also revealed that employees cared less about their decision’s impact on the company’s costs, but a strong interest in both company policy and storage illustrates a potential conflict in the decision-making for employees.

Mosher’s doctoral dissertation research brought about more questions based on some surprising results:

• Management perceptions seem to have more of a positive influence on the decisions employees make. A strong perception of trust, safety and quality lead to more positive safety and quality decisions though this strength was not seen at supervisory level.

• Negative vs. positive peer pressure plays a role in impacting employee decision-making, but this aspect requires further exploration

• Productivity had very little relationship to do with trust in management or safety/quality; however, Mosher predicts this maybe the Hawthorne Effect, meaning productivity may have been embellished because respondents may have felt that was the desired result.

Mosher hopes her research can serve as a basis for the development of educational training for agricultural employees, noting that little research has been done in this area to date. She plans to conduct additional research to test more decision scenarios, refine the quality perception measure for an elevator environment and to expand the number of participants.

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