This article is part of Blink's "frontline first" series: content created specifically for leaders of deskless or distributed teams. We know that the job of frontline leadership is entirely different from managing ‘desk-based’ teams, so this is for you and your unique set of challenges.
When you think of board-level management metrics, most people think along the lines of growth, market share, profit and efficiency. For frontline organizations, there’s another that’s just as critical: safety.
Frontline safety is front-page news
Where an organization’s success is built on distributed workers, there’s an inherent - and very human - vulnerability. The business’s success or failure hinges on these people and their ability (and will) to get to work - and so protecting their capacity to do so isn’t just a pastoral concern, but a fundamental one.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought this into sharp relief and public consciousness in an unprecedented way. When the desk-based world was able to retreat to working from home, frontline workers in healthcare, transit and retail were suddenly facing considerable risk simply by showing up. The scramble to give these workers - who had quickly (and deservedly) acquired ‘hero’ status - adequate protection shone a spotlight on what a lack of preparedness can do.
Although the pandemic is largely over, the key principle of frontline safety as a critical concern rightfully remains. Many frontline roles are intrinsically hazardous, involving operating dangerous equipment or working in environments such as construction sites where the potential for harm and injury is commonplace.
For anyone responsible for the performance of a frontline team, this article gives you some key principles to ensure that your people - and by extension, your organization - are protected.
Poor safety risks more than injury
The list of potential failures to deliver on frontline safety is long, including everything from trips and falls to crashes, cuts and even inhaling toxic fumes. These consequences should be reason enough to put frontline safety first, but it's worth talking about what else an organization risks by failing to do so.
1. The legal risk
As noted by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, workers have many rights, including the right to:
- Refuse dangerous work
- Training and protection from dangerous equipment
- Report and record injuries and receive treatment for those injuries
- Request an inspection
A failure to adhere to local, state, or federal laws can result in legal liability, major fines or a license suspension. In extreme cases, upper management can be personally held civilly or criminally liable.
2. The union risk
Many organizations with large frontline workforces will have strong union representation, one of whose major responsibilities is to act if they perceive threats to the safety of their members. A failure to act quickly and visibly on any risks to safety could result in union action, causing disruption that invariably impacts the bottom line.
3. The reputational risk
Risks to frontline workers during COVID-19 were a public relations disaster for hundreds of organizations who fell behind on providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or failed to provide adequate protection. From workers in factories for brands like Boohoo to the reporting of 20,000 cases of COVID-19 among Amazon workers, media and consumers alike were quick to rally behind frontline workers. While these levels of scrutiny may be now less acute post-pandemic, they remain a key concern for any business.
4. The performance risk
COVID-19 showed the frightening impact that safety has on the ability for a frontline business to operate effectively. Some reports suggest that up to one-third of US job vacancies are caused by long COVID, and every industry from transit to retail struggled to deliver services at times of high rates of sickness-related absence. For organizations to perform - particularly during the Great Resignation - they need a healthy (and therefore stable) workforce.
There’s also evidence that correlates perceptions of workplace safety with employee engagement, showing that safety is pivotal not just to basic operation, but to improving performance and retention.
Four steps to create a culture of frontline safety
Frontline safety is more than just a worker's orientation at the start of a job. It involves the creation of a culture that values safety as a core pillar. Here’s how you deliver on it.
1. Start with strategy
COVID-19 showed us that a lack of planning can be devastating when it comes to safety. So review your frontline safety strategy - if it’s more reactive than proactive, it’s time to make a change.
You’re aiming for a comprehensive safety strategy that addresses and minimizes risks and dangers to workers, including preparedness and response plans for emergencies and adherence to all local, state, and federal worker safety regulations.
This is a major undertaking that demands buy-in from the highest leadership level and should involve third-party experts to assist in conducting audits and validating proposed policies for their effectiveness.
This strategy should cover the key areas of training, equipment and environment, and reporting as a matter of course. But another important consideration for this strategy should be policies on sickness and injury pay. This was another area that was found under the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, when lack of adequate provision saw some frontline workers left with a choice between financial difficulty and putting themselves (and others) at risk.
Finally, a key - but often overlooked - aspect of building a safety strategy is to be highly demonstrative and communicative about it. Doing so allows team members to see that the organization is taking safety seriously and gives you the opportunity to start to build a safety-first culture.
2. Appropriate and ongoing training (for everyone)
Less than half of global frontline workers (44%) say they have received workplace health and safety training in the past year. This is a vital component of delivering on frontline safety, that should start with onboarding but be consistently reinforced and refreshed at regular intervals.
A critical concern here is to ensure that it’s not just the frontline worker who’s given high-quality, regular training - it’s also the manager.
Frontline managers are the critical point of failure for a safety-first culture: if they succeed, a team can be well-trained, issues can be effectively escalated and policies implemented properly. If they fail, this can allow policies and processes to fall into disrepair and for a culture of silence to be created, resulting in a ticking time-bomb for a safety issue. It’s therefore essential that manager training regularly reinforces the organization’s safety strategy, and that manager performance metrics ensure their accountability for its delivery.
3. Solicit safety-oriented feedback
Recent research by the Centre for People, Work and Organizational Practice at Nottingham Business School (NBS), in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), revealed that people who work on the frontline were less likely to have access to channels which allow them to speak up about issues and worries. This worrying state of affairs should be cause for immediate attention by any frontline leader.
The report determined that in many cases, the ‘command and control’ structure of many operational roles often led to a culture that made employees afraid to raise concerns without fear of repercussions. Critically, office-based staff were more likely to feel confident to speak out and had communications channels, such as computer systems, which enabled them to access information and communicate to others.
The first part of this solution is cultural - working with management and the frontline to remove inhibitions about speaking up and ensuring that whistleblowers are protected - but the second is more technical. Which leads to our last point…
4. Make communications a priority
We saw that office-workers feel more comfortable to whistleblow on safety because they have the technology to do so subtly and directly. This is where the frontline situation is also in urgent need of change.
One of the perennial challenges for frontline teams is communication - many teams rely on paper memos, noticeboards and in-person briefings, all of which have obvious drawbacks in terms of effectiveness and scale.
Some organizations have attempted to move over to more digital communications, often using email and WhatsApp for team communications or an intranet for company-wide messaging. While these are an improvement, they're still not a watertight solution for safety, because the frontline often struggles with adoption - email engagement rates are low and intranets often go unchecked as neither are seen as a critical part of the job.
There’s also another problem - as a leader, you can never be sure that your message has been read and received. In the fast-moving and mission-critical world of safety communications, this should be a major concern.
This is where employee applications like Blink can help. Installed on a frontline worker’s phone, Blink allows for constant communication, enabling every worker to read important information, reply to questions, and digitally sign appropriate files and forms. It also has a mandatory reads feature that requires employees to acknowledge that they have read something, solving the problem of knowing whether communications have been effective.
While making levelling up how you deliver information to the frontline is mission-critical, there's another important communications consideration: how the frontline gets information back to you. As we've seen, this is where frontline workers are often disempowered. An app like Blink helps by enabling workers to report incidents with just a couple of clicks through digital forms, ensuring that important concerns and near-misses can be escalated quickly and efficiently.
Delivering on frontline safety is a make-or-break business issue, and should have equal priority with any other board-level discussion. As we’ve learned over the past two years, failure in safety can mean failure as a business - but for those teams that put in the work, it can be a critical support to a happy and therefore productive workforce.
Frontline safety might be at its most visible in equipment and guidelines, but making it truly effective starts with making it part of a company’s culture.