Have you ever asked the question, “What else can I do to improve our safety culture?” The answer may be in your next conversation. One of the most common safety weaknesses I see in organizations is a lack of management engagement with employees. As a general rule, leaders support safety wholeheartedly from behind a computer but they fail to gain the value of personal interaction with employees in a safety context. The result is that workers develop a lack of trust and frustration in management’s commitment to safety. At the same time we ask, “What else can I do?” The remarkable solution is that we need to talk to people.
A couple years ago, I helped one of my clients identify ways they can improve their safety culture. The first step was to conduct a baseline safety performance assessment. I introduced them to our Principle to Practice Safety Scorecard. The process utilizes a standard protocol that measures the effectiveness of critical safety principles and practices such as management commitment. We compared how my client demonstrated management safety commitment versus how industry leaders demonstrate safety commitment.
Management commitment is one of the most important elements you can evaluate in your program. Without management commitment to safety, a company cannot achieve best-in-class results. For an example, a typical corporate mission statement shows management commitment on paper but our scorecard measures how well the commitment is translated to the workforce. If the safety commitment is not visible and consistent, it does not exist in the minds of workers.
The assessment took one week to complete. The result revealed that the client had a safety management system but they did not score well in the management commitment category. They did not have effective ways to engage employees. In other words, they did not talk with workers about safety on a frequent basis. They did not participate in safety audits, safety meetings or pre-job briefs, and they did not make it a habit to approach people about safety.
The management team had minimal visibility in a safety context. They supported safety from behind their computer and they delegated all of the “safety responsibilities” to the safety professional. This created a huge gap between the workers and management. Their safety program existed only on paper.
To fill this gap between commitment on paper and commitment in reality, we introduced a SAFE Dialogue process. The simple SAFE acronym is a proven error prevention tool that raises situational awareness with a conversation.
The initiative required the plant manager, the staff and department managers to leave their meetings and walk into the plant and engage employees face to face. They committed to do this once a week using the SAFE Dialogue format. The technique raises situational awareness with progressive questions about critical steps, potential errors, consequences and controls. The SAFE Dialog provides a forum for all leaders to learn what workers deal with on a daily basis. While gaining a better understanding of the risk with each step, leaders also developed a relationship with workers in a safety context.
The SAFE Dialogue engagement responsibilities included:
● Once a week, the plant manager, staff and department managers performed a SAFE Dialogue.
● They observed a specific operation and they talked to a minimum of two people.
● They used the SAFE Dialogue tool as their talking points.
● They asked employees the following questions:
S—Summarize the critical steps of your job. “What do you have to do today?”
A—Anticipate where you are most likely to make an error. “Where could you make a mistake?”
F—Foresee the worst-case scenario. “What is the worst thing that could happen?”
E—Evaluate your controls. “How will you prevent it?”
● They documented what they learned on the back of the card.
● They turned the cards in to the safety coordinator.
● The safety coordinator tracked participation and recorded good ideas.
The intent for the SAFE Dialogue conversation is to:
● Establish a relationship with your workforce in a safety context.
● Make yourself HIGHLY visible with safety.
● Talk to people about step-by-step safety in their work environment.
● Learn something about the process.
● Find a way to make an improvement.
● Show support and take ownership of safety.
● Make a difference in safety performance by engaging the workforce in a useful manner.
The intent for the SAFE Dialogue conversation is NOT to:
● Develop a long “to do” list for the safety coordinator.
● Pass off the safety responsibilities to others.
● “Get in the weeds” with every little detail.
The value of the program was a visible demonstration of consistent safety commitment. Leaders developed relationships with employees in the SAFE Dialogue forum and improvements followed.
Strategic Communication Strategy
To promote the program, the leadership team adopted a strategic communication strategy. The first step was to train the participants on how to execute an effective SAFE Dialogue. They also had to communicate the intent of the program to everyone in the plant. The communication process included four areas of focus:
Verbal Communications. Talk about SAFE Dialogues in a variety of settings.
Visual Communications. Make the program visible everywhere you go in the plant.
Written Communications. Keep the message alive through documentation.
Informal Communications. Leverage the momentum of the program and create a “buzz” around SAFE Dialogues.
The communication strategy included a list of actions such as:
● Teach SAFE Dialogue error prevention classes.
● Use the SAFE Dialogue as a learning process in casual conversations.
● Start every meeting with a safety topic that includes a discussion about a SAFE Dialogue.
● Promote the SAFE Dialogue in every safety training class.
● Deliver a different SAFE Dialogue safety topic each week.
● Put up SAFE Dialogue posters, banners and table tents.
● Document the procedure in the management system.
● Participate in casual conversations that include SAFE Dialogue elements.
The SAFE Dialogue program was a huge success. The results of the original Principle to Practice scorecard magnified a common weakness that organizations experience with employee engagement. The SAFE Dialogue was the solution. The process developed habits that encourage leaders to approach people about safety. The systematic questions about steps, errors, consequences and controls led to a better understanding of their processes. The insight improved situational awareness and built a stronger safety culture. The SAFE Dialogue process is an example of how injury prevention can begin with a conversation.
David G. Lynn, CSP is president of consulting firm Peak Safety Performance.