Oh, No! Changes in the Workplace
Change is rapidly becoming a common denominator for many utility safety programs for a variety of reasons. New equipment and automation bring changes to traditional work practices. Generational differences are changing the demographics of the workforce. Safety programs no longer focus just on OSHA compliance and lagging indicators. Certifications, such as the Certified Utility Safety Professional credential, are focusing on leadership, human performance, standards, hazard identification, operations and incident prevention techniques to achieve safety excellence.
Introducing change into the workplace can move employees outside of their comfort zones. If changing developed thoughts, actions and delivery were easy, everyone would be doing it all the time. As we all know, this is not happening in our respective workplaces, so it confirms change is not easy. Typically, change includes taking something less efficient and/or safe and altering or replacing it with something more efficient and safer.
Many times developing, managing and communicating changes can be more difficult than identifying areas where change should occur. When we don’t get these three areas correct the first time, we will have serious issues implementing change.
The first step to implementing change is seeing and understanding that changes are needed. How changes are structured and developed will eventually determine whether or not employees will buy in. It is important to engage employees in developing solutions and communication strategies for change – no one likes forced changed accompanied by a because-I-said-so attitude. Successful changes occur when employees feel ownership and pride in identifying and developing changes that will affect their work group.
A well-developed plan will ensure change is managed appropriately. When a plan is not properly developed, employees develop barriers, which lead to resistance. Many times barriers occur due to fear. Fear comes in many variances, such as fear of the unknown, fear of job security and most certainly fear of failure.
Fear of the unknown can definitely impact how change is perceived. Employees must understand requirements for implementing procedural changes in their specific job tasks. When safety procedures are confusing and not well developed, it becomes much easier to revert to original procedures. For example, new electrical safety work procedures are developed for 50 volts to 15 kV. The instrumentation and relay group members are required to follow the new required work practices, but they don’t understand how to implement the new work procedures in all of their job tasks. Unfortunately, training did not effectively address each specific job task. What will happen? Most likely, employees will revert to the original work procedures because they are easier to understand and implement.
Fear of job security affects employees when they learn about something new in the workplace and begin to wonder how it will impact their jobs. For example, you work for a municipal power system and your city council just voted to install smart meters. Presently you work in the meter department and fear this news will eliminate your job. Management assures all employees they have guaranteed jobs in the city at the same or a higher pay rate within two years when the program becomes fully implemented. Although this news has been communicated, sometimes it is extremely difficult to effectively rationalize since we are a society of mistrust. In today’s economy, the fear for one’s job is ever present. This can be overwhelming and debilitating. Safety professionals and line management must play a strong role in helping employees deal with job insecurity and fear by taking time to let employees know they care about them personally.
Atychiphobia, or fear of failure, occurs when we let our fear stop us from doing things that will enable us to move forward and achieve our goals. Many times our first thought is, “Can I do this?” This fear is very prevalent with technological changes. In today’s society, kids under age 10 have smartphones and tablets, and can text 100 words per minute. All of this technology can be extremely intimidating for an aging workforce. Unfortunately, a fear of failure is the main hindrance to achieving success. Employees often revert to old habits because they are scared to try something new. When we refuse to try new things because we are scared, this leads to stagnant careers. Remember the adage: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.”
This may be the most important of the three aspects of change. How you initially communicate changes to employees is very critical to successfully accomplishing management’s expectations. When a safety procedure is written or updated, employees should receive training on the procedure – why it was changed and how the procedure will affect their jobs in the future. Training should also include job-specific task requirements. Outlining specific tasks will help employees understand and implement new procedures, which will likely equal program success. Training should also address the business need for change, specifics of change, benefits of change and impacts of change. Reviewing this clearly in a formalized setting will enhance employees’ understanding, hopefully alleviating confusion. Many companies send out mass emails or safety alerts when new safety procedures are introduced. This informal method can be extremely insensitive and leave employees feeling disrespected by management.
As safety professionals and line management, we have the power and responsibility to ensure changes are effectively developed, managed and communicated to our workforce. Employees must be effectively trained and empowered to fully understand why changes are necessary and what they mean to their specific jobs. When change is approached correctly, it can reduce most fears and attitudes of resistance. When fears and attitudes are reduced, employees feel a sense of pride and ownership that equates to a safer work environment.
About the Authors: Andrew G. Green works for South Carolina Electric and Gas as a generation group safety adviser. He previously worked with the South Carolina Department of Transportation as an environmental and safety coordinator.
Pam Tompkins is president of SET Solutions, a safety consulting firm located in Lexington, S.C. She has worked in the electric utility industry for more than 30 years as a safety professional and consultant to T&D and generation service groups. Pam is a Certified Safety Professional, a Certified Utility Safety Professional and a founding member of the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network. She presently serves on the USOLN executive board as chairwoman of the education committee.