Do any of these conversations sound familiar?
Safety Manager: “Hey, put your safety glasses on!”
Supervisor: “You were driving that forklift way too fast over there. Slow down.”
Employee: “I was? I didn’t think I was going that fast.”
Employee 1: “You should get a spotter before you move that load.”
Employee 2: “No, I’m good. I don’t need a spotter for this one – it’s easy.”
Employee 1: “All right.”
Is this how conversations about safety tend to go in your workplace? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, would you call any of these a conversation? Too often, leaders simply point out unsafe behavior and tell employees to follow a safety rule. Similarly, employees often see coworkers taking unnecessary risks yet fail to address it in the moment.
A common theme running throughout these example interactions is that they are, in essence, just that – interactions. We really could not call any of these short exchanges a true conversation about safety. The dialogue in these simple examples ends as quickly as it begins, and there are no questions to understand the employee’s behavior or the circumstances behind it. Rather, an assumption is made about the observed behavior and there is little to show personal regard for the individual.
We currently are working with an organization that is trying change this. They specifically said that they want to “change the conversation around safety.” When I first heard this, it intrigued me but I wasn’t quite sure what they meant.
As I worked with them and learned more about their safety culture, operations and leadership team, it made more and more sense. They were tired of the predictable interactions where supervisors reprimanded employees quickly for certain actions, without stopping to ask why they did what they did. They were tired of employees seeing coworkers gamble with personal safety to save a few minutes, all the while standing by and saying nothing. But mostly, they realized that if their safety culture truly was going to change, they had to have honest and genuine conversations about safety and talk about why people were comfortable taking unnecessary risks, making careless mistakes and failing to take personal ownership for safety. To get to the next level in their safety culture, this had to change.
As you might expect, this aspect of safety culture simply cannot be changed overnight. It happens one day at a time, and one conversation at a time. There are many contributing factors, and by addressing each one of these, an organization can take active steps to change the safety conversation. Here are some of those key factors:
Leaders role-modeling the conversation. One of the biggest factors is leadership and the example that it sets when interacting with employees. How do leaders react in the moment? How do they talk to employees after safety incidents, near hits or even errors and oversights? These are opportune moments for a leader to role model how a constructive safety conversation should go. The conversation should be respectful, and emphasize that the leader cares about the safety and well-being of the individual. This sets the tone for the general workforce and provides an example of how workers can have good safety conversations in the future.
Ask more questions. As a supervisor or safety manager, when an employee violates a safety rule, you could simply say: “You broke a safety policy. Don’t do that again.” Or, you could try to better understand why someone did what they did and consider their perspective. I am a firm believer that people generally do not come to work planning to get injured. They make decisions which, at the time, seem reasonable based on the circumstance. Whenever we make assumptions and fail to ask good questions, we miss great opportunities to uncover rich and useful information about hazards, risks and various aspects of the true safety culture. As Stephen Covey would say, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When you do so, you open the door to a much better dialogue and conversation about safety.
Our safety DNA guides our decisions about personal risk. Everyone has different strengths and blind spots when it comes to risk and personal safety. We all have our own unique mix of attitudes, personality traits, abilities and values, and they impact our safety behavior each and every day. If we know our tendencies, and those of our coworkers, this can help us proactively make safer choices and create habits that decrease everyone’s exposure to risk. If I know that my coworker tends to be very comfortable with risk, it helps me understand why he may drive the forklift too fast, or why he thinks it’s okay to work for a couple of minutes on a piece of equipment that is energized. I now can be more proactive and anticipate situations where he might put himself at risk, have a meaningful conversation about it and at least try to influence him to do the right thing.
Conversations can go in many different directions, but first they have to evolve from a quick exchange into an actual dialogue where all sides are heard and have a chance to voice their opinions about risks and safe behavior. By taking these simple steps, we can encourage and facilitate productive and collaborative conversations about safety that truly take our safety culture to the next level.
(In the comment section, tell us a little bit about how the safety conversations at your workplace go, and what types of conversations you would like to see at your organization!)
About the author: Esteban Tristan, Ph.D., is the safety practice manager and a senior consultant at Select International. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.