4 Steps to Counter the Effects of Ugly Politics in Training Workers

In the middle of a recent training, seconds after I quoted an OSHA Standard, I caught a look of profound disgust on a worker’s face. I knew the proverbial shoe was going to drop any moment. As anticipated, the employee blurted out, “OSHA? Just another example of big government that needs to go.” Throughout the audience, I saw several heads nod in agreement. Sigh.

For the past several years, in what I feel is a direct result of truly polarized and ugly politics, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in worker mentality. Outright hostility toward anything government-related prevails among some demographics and geographic regions—even toward OSHA Standards– the very program in place to protect workers’ lives and health. What’s an EHS to do?

Unfortunately, I am not alone in this experience. In talking to other trainers in my discipline, I’ve found this to be a common and  painstaking occurrence.

It is enough for EHS trainers to attempt to overcome barriers that always exist in establishing a safety culture. From lack of financing to nonchalance about workplace safety and hurried or piece-rate working environments that cultivate accidents and injuries, we generally see it all. And we must scale those walls and deftly apply standards and change mindsets to protect employees.

Add to the above the hatred of “big” government and we truly have our work cut out for us. It is very hard to incorporate safety standards into the workplace if workers are resistant to rules set forth by the government. Workplace safety needs to be real and tangible to employees and their lives for changes to occur.

There are ways to overcome this barrier or at least soften its impact.

1.) Recognize the Mindset: If you encounter employees who feel that the government (including OSHA)  is “trying to control lives” or “taking away freedoms” — you aren’t going to change their minds in training. Rather than start an argument, simply stating, “I understand how you might feel that way” can diffuse the situation. Then move on quickly before training turns into wholesale government bashing.

2) Show Success: It’s not hard to argue that OSHA has been largely a successful venture when you compare the number of workers dying on the job in the 60’s (14,000 each year) before the passage of the OSH Act, compared to present day (4,628 in 2012). Use a chart or graphics in your PowerPoint to show the general decline in fatalities. I include this in nearly all my training programs, because it’s an excellent reminder for us all how much these standards have improved workplace safety cultures and saved lives.

Good sources for this information can be found here: https://www.osha.gov/as/opa/osha-at-30.html

3) Understand Misconceptions:  To reach your target audience, you should understand and prepare for existing misconceptions.  You know the facts, but don’t assume your workers are aware. Be proactive and address these during training to offset some of the ill will associated with false information.

Common misconceptions include the following:

  • OSHA is always (emphasis on “always”) making up new standards. Fact: It’s not a fast process to create or implement new regulations. From start to finish, it can take years for a proposed standard to become a final rule. Plus, input through stakeholder meetings and commenting by workers, employers and lobbying groups are part and parcel for all standards. OSHA does not wildly create regulations and/or secretly impose them on the workforce.  We have valuable input into this process and that input has voided or modified various proposed standards. Your workers should know this.
  • There are too many safety laws! Safety regulations are too strict!  Fact: The opposite is probably more true. For example, there are no federal OSHA standards for some known hazards, such as combustible dust, while other current standards might not be protective enough. Although OSHA is constantly reviewing existing standards, many of the regulations are antiquated and in need of updating. A 2013 OSHA News Release quotes Assistant Secretary of Labor, Dr. David Michaels as stating, “There is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective,” He went on to advise employers to review the new annotated tables, “since simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe.”
  • We don’t need laws. This is all just common sense. Fact: Much of what we know about safety is the result of science, not common sense. For example, methods to work safely with electricity, in confined spaces and preventing fire hazards are based on scientific research.  The average person cannot instinctively know most of these criteria. Laws that support these expert findings help ensure workplace safety. Common sense is helpful, but it’s not the sole answer to workplace safety.
  • OSHA is a huge, overstaffed entity.  Fact: OSHA is a relatively small agency. With state partners there are approximately 2,200 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers, employed at more than 8 million worksites around the nation. This translates to about one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers. Given all they are responsible for, they are accomplishing a lot with a minimal staff.

A little dose of the above reality won’t hurt your training audience.

4) Stop Scaring Workers: I just sat through a training offered by another consultant. He spent a lot of time concentrating on fear tactics to avoid OSHA penalties. Unfortunately, he lost a valuable opportunity to win people over to an enhanced safety culture, as that sort of training only instills animosity toward OSHA ,and in turn disdain for the very standards EHS are trying to implement. Rather than focusing on the cost of OSHA citations, focus on costs associated with injuries and accidents. Employees readily recognize that budgeting is fundamental to their employer and in maintaining their jobs. Generally, when employees realize the impact of direct and indirect costs of injuries on the bottom line, they are more than willing to help maintain compliance.

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