Are Your Employees Cows or Crows?

You’re driving down a country road, and up ahead you see a crow on one side of the road, and a cow on the other. You honk your horn to let them know you’re coming and what happens? The cow just stands there processing the grass–in one end out the other, like it does every day, blissfully unaware of the danger. It doesn’t even look up. On the other side, the crow is paying attention and probably took off even before you honked your horn.

How aware are your employees? Are they able to do the same task each day and still be aware enough to “fly away” when they are at risk? A good safety program keeps your employees aware of the risks from their everyday jobs, through supervisor responsibility, rules and training, employment involvement, and attention to “near misses.”


Your supervisors are the front line in the battle against injuries. They know their employees and the processes. They are out there every day in control of the operations. Make sure your supervisors are aware the risks that their employees face and what’s required to reduce those risks. When it comes to maintaining compliance, OSHA often looks at both management and supervisors when deciding who is liable for a fatality or serious injury.

Here are a number of things that you can do to help your supervisors protect employees and the company:

  • Provide supervisor awareness training to make sure they know their responsibilities.
  • Make supervisors accountable for safety; build safety into their annual performance reviews.
  • Have supervisors do regular documented safety inspections.
  • Use supervisors to provide some of the safety training, e.g., “tailgate” or “benchtop” meetings.
  • Make supervisors responsible for doing detailed accident investigations that include causes and corrective actions, with follow-up.
  • Ensure that supervisors send the message that there’s always time to “do it safely.”

Rules and Training

Your employee manual probably includes a list of results meant to protect the company from liabilities of sexual harassment, theft, improper Internet usage, etc. You probably also have methods of enforcing these rules, such as “third strike” policies. You should do the same with safety rules. There can be general safety rules outlined in the employee manual and job-specific safety rules defined in your safety manual, policies, and standard operating procedures.

Regular, repeated training will help keep employees aware of the rules. Enforcement of the rules will help bring the message home. Many construction companies rely on weekly tailgate meetings at the job sites to keep employees aware. You can have quick meetings in your workplace that focus on specific topics of concern [a good opportunity for supervisors]. Use occurrence of injuries and near misses to help drive your training topics. Repeated training can help keep safety “up front” in employees’ minds.


There are lots of ways to communicate safety to employees. Think about these methods:

  • Publish safety newsletter and handouts
  • Insert paycheck safety reminders or tips
  • Post safety posters
  • Circulate safety incentives
  • Count “no lost workdays”
  • Include safety issues in plant meetings to keep awareness up
  • Post Safety Committee minutes

Employee Involvement

Workers will be more responsive to safety requirements if they are involved in the process. Some ideas for instilling a sense of “ownership” include:

  • When doing Job Safety Analysis, make sure you talk with the employees involved in the operations. After all, they are the ones who are doing the work and will have an “insiders” viewpoint.
  • Provide a safety suggestion box, and make sure to follow up with the employees making the suggestion. Even if you don’t act on the suggestions, let them know why. That way, they know that they’re not being ignored.
  • Have a Safety Committee that includes workers from various departments. Don’t just rely on supervisors and managers to make up the Committee.
  • Make sure that employees know they they won’t get into trouble if they communicate safety issues. You would be amazed at the number of employees, especially from certain cultures, who think they they’ll be fired for “complaining” about safety.

Near Misses

Near misses are accidents just waiting to happen. Near misses are those accidents that almost happen. Near misses are what make injuries predictable. If you ignore them, you’re increasing the likelihood that someone will be hurt. OSHA statistics indicate that for every fatality or serious injury that occurs, there are 29 moderate injuries and 300 near misses! Think of the amount of pain, damage, and expense that could be saved if you recognized and responded to the first near miss–before it became an injury or fatality.

Most accidents result from one of two things:

  • Unsafe conditions. These are things that can usually be fixed or controlled.
  • Unsafe acts. These are behavioral, such as when employees put themselves and others at risk by not following the rules.

Ensuring that all the employees are looking out for unsafe conditions, unsafe acts and near misses and are empowered to dosomething them will go a long way towards reducing injuries and improving employee awareness.

They say that when a person is wide awake, alert, and mentally active, they are still only aware of 25% of what their body is doing. When your employees are working with machinery or chemicals, they need to be operating at 100%, including at 75% that their brains aren’t paying attention to.

Safety awareness is critical to avoiding injuries. So what’s it going to be for your employees? Cows or Crows?

The article was originally published in the October/November 2009 issue of the Journal of Environmental Management-Arizona. Ideas for the stories come from a variety of sources, including online news and Richard Hawk of Make Safety Fun.