Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Critical conversations: Talking about exposure

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In a perfect world, safety would be easy. Leaders would look at past incidents, identify how to avoid them and make sure everyone followed the rules. But real life is not so simple. The workplace is always changing – making it critical that employees be able to detect and respond to real-time changes in risk.

Exposure response is a theme that shows up time and again in the story of catastrophic and other serious events. Still, this capability is seldom developed as a discipline in its own right. It’s not hard to understand why: Building fluency in exposure change is an iterative process. It takes field experience and time. Sustaining it also depends on a culture that supports exposure response. That’s why some organizations are turning to their leaders – especially those at the front line – to start building that competency using conversations.

Talking about exposures in any context is a good thing. But a conversation designed to build fluency takes a little more structure. One simple framework focuses discussions on what are called the “Four R’s” of exposure response:

  • Respect and acknowledge the hazards. As leaders, our first job is to put exposures in the right context. Most of us have “gotten away with” shortcuts and other risky behaviors dozens, maybe hundreds, of times without getting hurt. As a result, we can minimize the reality of exposures, creating a complacent safety culture. Talk about the risks in your workplace and why it’s critical to treat them with the highest degree of care.
  • Recognize when exposure changes. The signs of exposure change can be subtle. It might be a pump running louder than usual or an employee who is stressed or fatigued. Discuss the signs you’d see in your location (e.g., temperature in equipment rising too quickly or new water/liquid on the floor). Ask employees what else they observe and wonder about. The goal is to provoke thinking and discussion about exposures and cultivate the ability to recognize when they change.
  • Respond to exposures. Even with stop-work policies, most organizations don’t adequately prepare employees to respond to “red flags” – signal events that require intervention. Employees often lack confidence in their own perception of risk, they may fear the ridicule or disapproval of peers or supervisors, or they simply may not know what to do. As leaders, it’s critical to talk through how to respond to different, specific situations. Ask: What would you do first? What would you do next? Probe different scenarios and contingencies (the backup equipment doesn’t work, now what?). Your job is to help employees practice their response – and demonstrate your support for when it’s time to act.
  • Remove barriers. In a strong safety culture, workers know what to do to remove barriers to safe work, and they never feel hesitant to take the necessary steps to do so. Talk with employees about the hierarchy of controls and the importance of using higher order controls when possible. Ask about existing barriers and communicate the status of action items.

Conversations will look different depending on your objectives and culture. Whatever your approach, your job as a leader is to help employees develop fluency in the language of exposures. Doing so, you enable them to be more proactive and effective at protecting themselves, others and the organization itself.

Jacque Stack Cooney is director of consulting at BST. Cooney oversees safety change initiatives at organizations throughout the United States and Canada, and is active in the development of new methods for safety improvement.


Ryan Roark is director of operations at AkzoNobel Surface Chemistry. Roark is responsible for manufacturing, HSE&S and process technology for the global Surface Chemistry Business Unit.

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