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'Understand their motivations'

Workers’ communication preferences are changing

March 1, 2013

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Most people know the “Golden Rule”: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. But for safety professionals, E. Scott Geller, alumni distinguished professor in the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, advocates the “Platinum Rule”: Treat others the way they want to be treated. Changes and advancements in electronic communication have given safety professionals more ways to communicate safety messages, such as safe work processes, OSHA regulations and what personal protective equipment workers should wear for a certain task. But safety pros must keep in mind that as their communication methods and preferences have changed, so too have those of the workforce.

Changing communication preferences

In his 2006 book, “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships,” author Daniel Goleman identifies ways that advances in technology and electronic communication have impacted people’s social skills and communication styles. Goleman suggested that as electronic communication has become more widespread, more people have developed a tendency to prefer social isolation over interpersonal communication.

“Social skills as a people have been on the decrease, coinciding with high-tech communication,” said Geller, who also is senior partner at Blacksburg, VA-based Safety Performance Solutions. “[Also], workers are becoming more individualistic and less focused on being part of a community.”

Gerald A. Edgar, environment, health and safety manager for Mitas Tires North America Inc. in Charles City, IA, has worked as a safety professional since 1978. He said the workforce in 1978 was more “matter of fact” when it came to listening to safety messages, whereas today workers are more likely to ask “Why?” when presented with a safety rule. He suggested that these differences come from changes in labor contracts and shifts in household culture dynamics.

Geller said increasing social distance could potentially decrease opportunities for safety professionals to provide feedback to workers. Although providing feedback may make people uncomfortable, he said, it is a crucial part of the safety professional’s job.

Know your audience

Mary Eriksen is human resources and safety manager for Omaha, NE-based Sapp Bros. Inc., which manages truck travel centers, restaurants, service centers, warehouses and wholesale fuel distribution. Eriksen, who interacts with a variety of audiences – from cashiers, restaurant workers and mechanics to managers and executives at the office – said how much information she provides and how long she keeps workers at meetings are issues of respect. “I make sure that I am addressing things that they care about,” she said. “I try to understand their motivations and their concerns, as what they hear is only the information they feel they need to know.”

When choosing what information to share with workers and how to share it, Edgar said he looks at a variety of factors, including an employee’s years of experience, the personality of the individual or group, and the history of prior injuries.

The purpose of understanding these factors, he said, is that workers are more likely to listen to and comply with messages they feel are geared toward them.

Choosing the best method

Eriksen sets guidelines for herself on whether an email, phone call, staff memo or in-person visit is the most effective way to relay safety information to employees. She also considers whether certain information can wait until the next time a group of workers meet, especially if it will allow everyone an opportunity to voice their opinions and ask questions.

Geller said that although email is increasingly taking the place of personal communication, some things still need to be communicated face to face, such as situations in which a safety professional must discipline a worker who engaged in an unsafe work practice. In-person communication allows workers an opportunity to express their viewpoints and feel that they have been heard, Geller said.

“The No. 1 job of a safety professional is interpersonal communication in terms of getting the job done,” Geller said. “[The safety professional] needs to communicate in a way that allows the person to feel included in decisions.”

The verbal and non-verbal cues provided by real-time, in-person communication also are important because they can help identify safety messages that the worker does not understand, he said.

Positive communications

Geller believes traditional safety communication has not been inclusive toward employees; rather, it often comes as a top-down mandate: “Do as I say, and safety is a condition of employment.” This, he said, created a culture of blame rather than inclusiveness.

The methods and language of traditional safety communication can come across as a turn-off to today’s average worker, who expects more autonomy and respect, Geller said. This means safety professionals need to ask workers more open-ended questions, show they sincerely care about workers’ safety and demonstrate they are truly listening.

Focusing on the positive, not the negative, as much as possible is a good technique to encourage worker engagement, said Cornelius Lacks, health, safety and environment manager for Ridgefield Park, NJ-based Samsung C&T America Inc., a global trading and investment company that also markets and distributes textile and apparel products. Lacks said he always frames an injury as what will be done in the future to prevent it from happening again. This includes using phrases such as “continual improvement” and “as we prepare for the next task.”

Lacks said to take every opportunity to train or provide a learning moment, as well as feature stories of positive safety learning experiences in communications.

“We always hear the stories about the bad thing that happened,” he said. “Have a good safety story every once in a while.”

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