Have You Heard About Safety?

Oct. 15, 2003
Communications can make or break a safety program. Here is expert advice on making sure you produce an effective safety message.

Safety is an idea. It can mean a department and a budget line to a CEO, an audit responsibility for a middle manager and a lingering back injury or requirement to wear protective gear to a line worker. Since communication is the art of expressing an idea, it is little wonder that savvy safety professionals such as Gary Olmstead of General Mills call it "the most important aspect of any program." Without effective communication, says Olmstead, companies will not be able to get employees at all levels to buy into the program. If employees lack that personal interest in safety and do not value it, it has little chance to be successful.

Consultant Robert Pater stresses that safety is about "creating change in people." Communication is the vehicle used to change their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and values so that they will act in a safe manner.

"It is the carrier wave for any change," said Pater, the managing director of Strategic Safety Associates, Portland. "You can purchase the best PPE around and if people don't know it is available or don't know how to use it, you have just wasted a lot of money and time."

Communicate to All Levels

Safety managers frequently spend much of their time communicating to line employees through training and other contacts, working to change their behavior on an individual basis. While that has value, Pater notes, they typically spend too little time working with supervisors, mid-level managers and senior managers.

In particular, says Pater, senior management offers time-pressed safety officials the most bang for their buck because they wield the most influence in their organizations.

At General Mills, for example, Olmstead, the director of safety and environmental management, meets three times a year with the safety and environmental executive council, which includes the heads of each of the company's seven business units. These meeting offer an opportunity to review safety programs and metrics, and get their input on what action may be needed for improvement. Moreover, because these managers are together, they compare how their operations are doing, an incentive for underperformers to improve.

Olmstead also tries to attend all plant manager meetings and, where possible, be on the program. In addition, someone from his department visits virtually every facility annually. This frequent contact helps plant officials understand the program and their role in it, but also develops the trust and understanding necessary for ongoing support of the safety program.

In addressing different audiences within the organization, said Robert Emery, executive director, Environmental Health & Safety for the University of Texas Houston Health Science Center, it is important to match the message with the recipients and make sure that it is crafted in a way that it will interest them. As an example, he said if you monitor for noise and find that levels require implementation of a hearing conservation program, the message to upper management should note that there is a regulatory concern, it may be impacting quality and employees' ability to do a job safely, and here are the program's initial and ongoing costs.

Line workers, said Emery, will have a much more personal interest in the program. "They want to know Do they hurt when I jam them in my ear? Can I get extra ones to put in my pocket and take home for hunting season? Are they available in neon colors?" he said. "We have to understand what they resonate to and sell to that point."

Use a Variety of Tools

Safety managers have an unprecedented array of communication tools at their disposal, from personal contacts to group meeting and training to various printed and electronic media. "Strong safety programs use broad-based, multiple contacts of communication, all of which are well done," said Pater.

He cautioned that each type of communication has advantages and disadvantages. For example, one-on-one contacts are very personal so you can find out the person's concerns and what they think could be done better, but they are time intensive. Written communications such as newsletters or e-mails reach many people and are time-efficient, but offer little feedback.

Emery recommended that safety managers communicate succinctly. Charts and graphs offer a good way to communicate information quickly. For example, a summary chart can quickly show when fire drills are scheduled and when, to date, they have taken place.

While communication should be concise, it should also offer a way for people who desire it to get additional information. Emery uses this method in an e-mail system he has set up to explain when false alarms go off in the university. The e-mail provides a short message about where and when the alarm went off, but then offers a link to additional information on the emergency plan.

Make it Lively

While a fair amount of safety training is required because of government regulations, no regulation requires that the training be boring or repetitious.

"We are in the business of edutainment," says Emery with a chuckle. "There are requirements for training, but we have an obligation to make it entertaining. If we can't be lively and jazz the thing up a little bit, people are going to dread it."

Emery said too many presentations involve a speaker who is not animated, and slides that are dull or so busy the main point is lost. "We have to be enthusiastic advocates for safety. Training is where you make or break it," he said. "If the people leave the room feeling as if they are cared for, they'll respond and 90 percent of your headaches are taken care of."

Pater said it is a mistake to believe that simply presenting information will cause the desired effect. "If information caused change, hardly anyone would smoke, everyone would be in good shape and people would eat well," he pointed out. Instead, said Pater, it is important to realize that people are emotional beings and that it is critical to sell them on programs and desired behavior, not simply inform them. Pater urged safety managers to spend more time on how they package information.

Listen and Learn

Communication, said Pater, falls into two categories projective (outward) and receptive (inward). While safety professionals need to impart information to people in their organizations, asking questions and listening attentively is equally important. Many safety professionals are trained in projective communications. They see their role as leaders who impart their expert knowledge to others. Yet, said Pater, a small issue that is not addressed because employees or managers don't share it can cripple a safety effort.

Having a safety suggestion box or open door policy is not enough, Pater warned. Safety managers need to actively solicit information, and do it in a way that puts people at ease. For example, said Pater, if an employee is not wearing PPE, you can ask, "Why don't you wear it?" but you can also say: "We're seeing people not using PPE. Why do you think people around you don't do it?"

At the University of Texas, Emery added to the end of observation checklists the question: Do you have any safety and health concerns? Some 83 percent of the people asked said they did. Many of the concerns involved issues not on the checklists, such as water quality in drinking fountains or safety in parking lots. "By asking, it engaged them in the process and let them know we were concerned about them," said Emery. "Then we followed up on anything they came up with."

Don't Go Through the Motions

Employees quickly realize when safety communications are not sincere or done only to satisfy regulatory requirements. With such "stamp ticket" communication, says Pater, employees receive the message that the company does not believe safety is important or does not know what it is doing.

Olmstead said safety communication must occur regularly and, most importantly, in a meaningful way. Employees need to understand why they should care and be responsible. "We are working against the attitude that exists in our culture that it is always someone else's responsibility," said Olmstead. "What we are doing is protecting you so you can go home to your family. Isn't that something you are interested in?"

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