Why is discussing safety challenging for many safety leaders, managers, and supervisors? After all, safety is a human psychological need, and discussing it is in everyone’s best interest.
Even with this in mind, safety discussions commonly are met with rolling eyes and sarcastic comments from employees.
This often is the result of safety conversations that are one-sided or delivered with a focus on compliance rather than concern.
Safety is more than just written policies, forms, permits, and training – it is about conversations. If you are one of the many people who dread safety discussions, there is good news. There are simple strategies that will make safety discussions meaningful and engaging.
We all have experienced the “safety cop” mentality – the safety leaders, managers, or supervisors who are just looking for someone to make an example of without truly knowing the circumstances surrounding the situation.
Rather than using an incident as a learning opportunity, they choose only to place blame. Each unsafe condition or observed at-risk behavior must be viewed as an opportunity to educate and initiate change.
A simple strategy focusing on the context of the condition or behavior, the condition or behavior itself, the potential negative result of the condition or behavior, desired future actions, and the results of these actions can lead to positive behavioral change.
Consider an employee who is using a bench grinder with a missing tongue guard. The safety cop often uses compliance as the hammer, “If OSHA walked in right now, they would issue a citation for the missing tongue guard.”
These types of statements focus on compliance rather than concern for the employee. Employees often feel like the company cares more about citations than their health and safety.
Consider this alternative message: “I noticed that the bench grinder’s tongue guard is missing. Did you know that if the wheel were to disintegrate the shrapnel from the wheel, it could hit you in the torso at 150 miles per hour and cause serious injury? Let’s make sure we always have the tongue guard in place and properly adjusted. This will protect you and your coworkers from serious injury.”
This simple example illustrates feedback that focuses on concern rather than compliance.
Many supervisors and managers conduct routine safety meetings or include safety in routine discussions.
They might run through a list of safety rules, review a company policy, or other information provided by the company. These types of activities, similar to the bench grinder example, focus on compliance rather than concern.
The motive behind the information and the delivery is positive, but choosing not to focus on the reasons for implementing rules and policies and how they protect employees is a missed opportunity to change behavior.
Consider the following delivery: “It is important that we conduct atmospheric readings prior to entering grain storage structures. In the past six months, we have experienced two separate instances where air quality was not acceptable for entry. There were issues with both oxygen deficiency and elevated phosphine levels that could have impacted the entrants.” This simple example, like the bench grinder conversation, focuses on why.
Safety conversations are a two-way street. Communicating information without engaging the audience is a presentation rather than a conversation.
The goal of a conversation is to elicit feedback, concerns, and to understand employee needs.
Asking questions that start with “Are you ... ” or “Do you ... ” result in yes or no answers that do little to develop meaningful conversation. Asking questions that use words, such as why, what, how, etc., result in discussion.
Consider the supervisor conducting a pre-shift meeting each day. An easy way to include safety in the conversation is to identify the day’s primary objective, for example, loading a train.
After the objective is defined, asking simple questions in a logical order can generate conversation and reinforce the safety message. Some examples include, “What types of safety equipment are needed for loading the train?”; “What are the job steps?”; “What hazards are involved in each step?”; and “How are we going to address each hazard?”
There is no question that engaging in safety discussion sometimes can be intimidating. The more we can generate meaningful conversations, the easier these conversations become.
For example, the supervisor who repetitively asks, “What are the job steps?”; “What are the hazards of each step”; and “How can we address each hazard?” soon will find that these questions just become part of everyday conversation and lead to meaningful discussions.
Safety conversations are challenging. The good news is that focusing on “why” demonstrates concern over compliance. Asking the right questions is an effective strategy for initiating meaningful safety conversations and finding the balance between compliance and concern.
Joe Mlynek is president and safety and loss control consultant for Progressive Safety Services LLC, Gates Mills, OH; 216-403-9669; and content creation expert for Safety Made Simple, Olathe, KS.
- From May/June 2021 GRAIN JOURNAL