Safety Professional = Marketer?

This week, safety professionals from a variety of industries gathered together at the Oregon Governor’s Occupational Safety and Health (GOSH) Conference, one of the largest safety and health conferences in the Northwest. With more than 100 workshops, our staff was only able to attend a handful of the presentations. However, we left the conference with valuable knowledge about the latest in the occupational safety and health field and are excited to share what we’ve learned with our readers.

One of the notable presentations we attended was conducted by Brett Phillips, a principal consultant for EORM, Inc. Phillips talked about the importance of marketing your organization to advance safety culture and how safety messages must be tailored to different audiences in order to be successful.

“One of the biggest mistakes safety people make is thinking they are only in the business of safety. In safety, you’re actually a marketer,” Phillips stated. With how often safety professionals must motivate others to work safe and how quick workers can be adverse to change, there is a lot of wisdom and practices in the marketing world that can be applied to your job in safety to make you more effective.

According to the American Marketing Association (AMA), marketing “is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” In this context, the desired result of the marketer is typically some sort of monetary purchase in exchange for the value given.

But in safety we aren’t trying to persuade someone to give us money, right? This is very true. This is where the principles of social marketing come into play. The main difference between traditional marketing and social marketing is the objectives of the marketer. Instead of influencing someone to make a purchase, social marketing “seeks to influence social behaviors not to benefit the marketer, but to benefit the target audience and the general society.”

During the presentation, Phillips gave several great examples, many of which we are very familiar with, of social marketing:

  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week.
  • Eat five fruits and veggies every day.
  • Brush your teeth in the morning and before you go to bed.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep each night.

“What do all of these statements have in common?” Phillips asked. “They are undividable, simple, affirmative action statements.”

Keep it simple, stupid!

To further drive his point home, Phillips talked about a personal experience that took place years ago with a construction company. Recordable injuries were up and this was a big concern for management. In an effort to decrease these injuries, the safety team went to the on-site managers and supervisors with a list of all the “safety tasks” they needed to accomplish on a regular basis.

Do you think these on-site managers and supervisors were happy about all these extra tasks they had to worry about in addition to their already huge workload?


The safety team was met with a lot of resistance, causing them to have to revisit their strategy. So, Phillips and his team decided to begin simply by looking at one of the recordable injuries that had a high level of occurrence (cuts and abrasions) on the construction sites and start by focusing on that.

Phillips and his team went back to the managers and supervisors and told them, “Just prevent cuts.” This seemed like a more reasonable request, so the managers agreed and it became a goal for all workers to “just prevent cuts.”

Guess what happened?

All recordable injuries, not just cuts and abrasions, decreased on the construction sites. Pretty soon, the people who cared about cuts started noticing other safety hazards on the jobsite and felt like if they cared about cuts they should probably care about those other hazards as well.

From the undividable, simple, affirmative action statement of “just prevent cuts” came huge safety improvements in general.

In a workplace where timeliness and costs are major considerations, marketing your safety message must often begin simply in order to gain buy-in and increase motivation among management and employees. With already heavy workloads, adding safety into the mix can often seem overwhelming to many.

Tailor your messages to fit the audience you are trying to reach.

There’s a basic fact that exists in pretty much every workplace: each employee is unique and motivated by different things.

This can make it difficult to make sweeping changes in workplace safety and communicate the importance of those changes.

Phillips proposed looking at two components when thinking about crafting safety messages and motivating employees to make safety a priority:

  1. Where people are at on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  2. What generation they belong to
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow believed people are motivated to achieve certain needs, so he created a hierarchy of the five basic categories of needs people are motivated by. Maslow

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love & Belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-Actualization

The basic premise is that one must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. For example, if you don’t have basic food and water, having a lot of friends or feeling extremely accomplished at work may not be a huge priority.

This especially comes into play when companies work in multiple countries, where workers may or may not have certain needs fulfilled. Marketing your safety message and motivating employees in one country may look very different than another.

For example, Phillips talked about a construction project he worked on in a less-developed country where he was in charge of safety. On previous projects he worked on in more developed countries, where workers had their basic needs met, he could typically encourage people to work safe by telling workers to “work safe because we care about you as people” and appealing to their esteem needs.

However, in this particular country where workers were struggling to get food on their table, that same message of care and concern seemed to have little effect on workers. Phillips then re-evaluated what needs were mostly likely motivating the workers in that country and had to change his message to: “work safe if you want to keep your job, make money, and provide for your family.”

This message wouldn’t fly in all countries or companies, but it worked in this case.

Generational differences among employees

As you can see, simply telling someone to “work safe or else” or “you’ll be fired if you don’t work safe because it’s the law” does not work with all employees or audiences. To add on another level of difficulty, there are many different generations within a workplace. To name a few:

  • Traditionalists (born pre-1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980)
  • Millennials (born 1981-present)

Because each generation has lived through a different set of experiences, historical events, and value systems, in general, it can be difficult spreading safety among the generations in a uniform way. Each generation has different strengths, weaknesses, values, and a preferred way of being spoken to.

Although you want to be careful to not follow blanket stereotypes about each generation, learning how to manage different generations when it comes to increasing workplace safety can still be helpful. For more information, consider reading this article from the Wall Street Journal.

Some other things you may want to consider

In addition to taking a look at the two components proposed by Brett Phillips (needs and generation of your audience) when encouraging others to work safely, there are a couple other employee “characteristics” you may want to consider:

  1. Demographics (age, income, gender, race)
  2. Psychographics (social class, values beliefs, opinions, and interests)
  3. Personality (check out 16Personalities for a comprehensive list of personality types)

By taking into account the differences among management and employees, you will be better equipped to promote or market the importance of safety within an organization, even if drastic changes to existing processes and procedures are required.

Does your organization have a strategy for marketing safety messages to different groups or kinds of people within the workplace? If so, how does your organization go about it and what motivators have you found to work best for each group? Comment below or join our forum conversation!