Informal peer-help networks already exist in most workplaces. People are social creatures, with a powerful drive to interact and communicate, and in a work environment this often translates to employees with more experience or specialized skills offering guidance to their coworkers. Peer-to-peer safety education programs seek to broaden and strengthen these peer-help networks, and to use them to encourage safe work habits.
Between 1999 and 2000, the Health and Safety Department of the United Automobile Workers established a new safety training program that incorporated peer trainers. Researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a study of the program and found that peer trainers were one of the most popular and effective aspects of the successful safety initiative. When applied correctly, a peer-to-peer education can be a powerful tool in the effort to create a culture of safety and prevent workplace injury.
The Problem: Too Many Hazards, Too Few Safety Officers
A peer-driven system can help overcome some of the most common and enduring challenges faced by safety officers. Because workers and supervisors are often of different age or belong to different social groups, both sides may be reluctant to communicate, even something as important as safety concerns or suggestions. On top of this, communication with authority figures capable of disbursing reprimands and other penalties is inherently uncomfortable and hard to do. The personnel tasked with overcoming these problems and keeping workers safe are put in a difficult position: safety is an all-over, all-the-time issue, but even the most dedicated safety manager cannot be everywhere at once.
The Solution: A Culture of Safety
By effectively creating a whole team of relatable safety managers, a peer-to-peer safety program offers a solution. If a select group of workers can be trained as safety ambassadors—given safety information, knowledge of the best techniques to communicate that information, and firsthand experience with protective equipment—they can bridge the communication gap on safe conditions and behavior more easily than an authority figure, and more efficiently than a few overworked safety officers.
Selecting Your Safety Ambassadors
Selecting the right people to act as peer educators is an important part of establishing your peer-to-peer safety program. A safety ambassador should be friendly, outgoing, and comfortable speaking to others and listening to their concerns. He or she should speak the same language and share the perspective of the workforce, be someone workers can identify with, trust and respect. Safety ambassadors should serve as role models—their task is not only to relay information, but to set an example by showing that giving safety advice to peers is acceptable and praiseworthy. This is the foundation of a culture of safety. Safety is not a rule imposed by management—it is a value shared by all employees, a commitment among workers to keep each other safe. Breaking this commitment through unsafe behavior is selfish and disrespectful to one’s peers.
Once a group of peer educators has been selected, a training program must be developed. Experience shows that the development team should contain not only safety officers and upper management, but also the safety ambassadors themselves. In the University of Michigan study mentioned above, researchers found that “the involvement of [safety ambassadors] in the curriculum development process helped ensure that the items selected would be of interest to rank and file [employees] and would be readily understandable by them.” The specifics will vary by company but there are some topics that most programs will cover. We’ll look at those in my article next week.