Professional development Safety culture Injury prevention

Speaking of safety

Changing the atmosphere around safety conversations

talking safety
Image: Missouri Department of Transportation

Safety should be easy to talk about. Given that it’s in everyone’s best interest, as a topic of conversation it should be no more controversial than discussing the weather. So why can it be difficult to broach the subject, and why does safety advice – whether given by a safety pro or discussed between co-workers on the front line – often seem to fall on deaf ears? As it turns out, the problem may be less in the message and more in the delivery, experts say.

A risky proposition

Giving unsolicited advice can be an uncomfortable experience, particularly if people aren’t sure what to say or how to say it. This lack of confidence can make a worker reticent to say something to a co-worker, said organizational psychologist Susan L. Koen, practice leader and executive consultant for Oxnard, CA-based DEKRA Insight.

“Traditionally, we’re taught to be polite, which often has meant, ‘Keep your opinions to yourself and don’t make waves,’” Koen said. “We’re not taught in our culture how to be collaborative, how to give and receive constructive feedback, so it’s difficult for people to give feedback, period.”

The discomfort is compounded when someone is unsure about how a message will be received. Workers may be reluctant to accept safety advice for many reasons, including:

They don’t like being told what to do. “For whatever reason, people just can’t stand being given advice,” said Steve Casner, research psychologist and author of “Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds.” “We have age-old sayings that advise us not even to attempt this futile and sometimes dangerous act. The only situation in which studies find that people are willing to accept advice is when they are paying obscene amounts of money for it.”

They don’t believe they’re in danger. Workers may not see the need for safety advice, either because they think they’ve heard it before or because they believe what they are doing is safe.

“We tend to overestimate our ability to do literally everything and underestimate the risks we face while doing it,” Casner said. “We also seem to have an unshakable belief that bad things are more likely to happen to others than they are to us.”

It can be especially difficult to deliver safety messages to a worker whose personal history with a risky behavior contradicts the advice.

“Experience is such a huge factor when it comes to compliance and thinking about safety messages,” Casner noted. “On the one hand, experience tells us what to be on the lookout for. On the other hand, experience is what allows us to feel confident enough to cut corners, to skip steps, to break from the safety protocol.”

It may be tough to convince a co-worker that a behavior is unsafe if he or she has been doing it that way for years without incident. But, as Casner points out, one time is all it takes.

Where you see assistance, they see aggression. It can be hard to maintain a calm, neutral demeanor when the stakes are high.

“When a colleague is about to harm [him or her] self or others, it triggers our emotional brain, so we’re less rational in the ways we approach them,” Koen said. “The alarm element comes through, even if it’s just in our voice. Anytime somebody comes toward us with emotions, we tend to put up a defense, so we often get off on the wrong foot from the very beginning.”

Sometimes the advice-giver’s frustration and aggression are not just perceived but real – particularly in cases of repeated noncompliance.

“The more time you’ve served as ‘safety police,’ the easier it is to become frustrated,” Casner said. “The volume of the voice ratchets up each time and the tone of the voice trends toward angry and impatient. It’s a psychological response that’s hard to turn off.”

These negative feelings often are based on judgments of the worker performing the risky behavior, Koen noted.

“There’s an underlying sense that if somebody’s about to do something wrong, they’re either ignorant, inept or indifferent,” she said. “And if you haven’t really thought through those beliefs, they will come through in ways that the receiver hears. It’s very important to understand that most people about to commit an unsafe act are not doing it intentionally.”

For example, an action might be safe in some conditions but dangerous in others, and the worker may not have noticed the change in circumstances. Or the worker may simply be following faulty instructions. Regardless of the actual reasons, making disparaging assumptions will affect the tone of the message and render it less effective.

Doctoring delivery

The challenge is to foster healthy, productive conversations about safety, despite these barriers. No one is immune to injury-inducing error, distraction or complacency, and the best defense is sometimes the vigilance of those around us.

“A high percentage of injuries occur when somebody either saw the person doing something unsafe or saw the condition and chose not to say anything,” said John Drebinger, a professional safety motivational speaker who teaches communication skills to safety teams and the author of “Would You Watch Out for My Safety?” “When somebody sees a hazard that could be corrected or sees somebody doing something unsafe, that incident or injury is 100 percent preventable. If somebody would have taken action, then that wouldn’t have happened.”

There is no magical formula to make someone heed safety advice. But improving the atmosphere around safety conversations can make it easier to both give and receive advice in a graceful, constructive way.

Retire the ‘safety police.’ The “gotcha” approach is both impractical and counterproductive, experts say. When workers feel they are being policed, they find ways to hide their unsafe behaviors, resulting in lost opportunities for improvement.

“When people want to do something, they’ll do it whether somebody’s watching or not,” Drebinger said. “If people are doing it because it’s a regulation or a rule, they’ll do it when they’re being watched or they think someone will know. That whole mentality is about catching people, and it’s not economically feasible to have enough people going around catching others doing unsafe things.”

To make a genuine, long-term impact, take a persuasive approach rather than a punitive one.

“We sometimes characterize safety professionals as one of two things: the safety cop or the safety consultant,” said Wes Scott, director of Consulting Services Research and Safety Management Solutions for the Itasca, IL-based National Safety Council. “Show yourself to be educated, informed and resourceful, and really speak to the person without being directive. We find ourselves acting like enforcers, and there’s a lot of resistance to that approach. It may work in the short term, but in the long term, that’s just not a good way to conduct business.”

Speak the worker’s language. When asking a worker to change his or her ways – especially longstanding, habitual behaviors – resistance is a likely response.

“If someone doesn’t accept safety advice, whether it’s from a co-worker, a supervisor or a safety person, it’s because nobody gave them a good enough reason why,” Drebinger said. “Just telling them they have to do it or that it’s important is not good enough.”

Instead of presenting the information in the way that makes the most sense to the speaker, consider how the worker will receive it. Before saying anything, take a moment to think about who is being spoken to and what he or she cares about, and tailor the conversation to speak to those motivations.

“If I’m talking to a CEO, my conversation clearly is going to be around business reasons to embrace safety and health,” Scott said. “But if you were to go to an employee and say, ‘Look, the company spent a million dollars last year on workers’ comp,’ that’s not going to motivate them. If you say, ‘At the end of the day, we want you to go home to see your family, to do the things that you enjoy,’ the reason is ultimately the same, but the message is altered based on what motivates that person.”

Remember: Good communication goes both ways. Instead of doing all the talking, listen to what the worker has to say – especially any questions or objections he or she brings up, which can reveal his or her motivations.

“A common response might be, ‘Show me in the regulation where it says to do that,’” Scott said. “And if I keep saying, ‘It’s the right thing to do, and we really should do it because it’s going to keep you safe,’ but never address your question, then you’re not going to be motivated to accept what I have to say.”

Demonstrate care and concern. By far, the greatest reason to give a worker for adopting a safe behavior is concern for his or her well-being, and the best way to avoid the appearance of lecturing is to show concern for that person.

“You have to approach it from a standpoint of everybody caring about each other and watching out for each other,” Drebinger said. “I don’t want to see anybody get hurt. So if I look over and you don’t have your safety glasses on, I should care enough to walk over, ask why, and go from there.”

Be calm and keep emotions in check to help send the right message.

“Before you speak, you have to be clear about your purpose,” Koen said. “If your own fears are what’s driving you, you’re more likely to come across as scolding because your intention is to stop that person from making you afraid. Hold your own fears at bay and express your concern for that person.”

Focus on specifics. “Instead of giving feedback about the actual behavior that they saw, people tend to make statements like, ‘You didn’t follow procedures,’ or ‘I saw you doing this wrong,’” Koen said.

To avoid expressing judgment or disapproval and provoking a defensive reaction, limit comments to the precise behavior or condition that was witnessed.

Get (and give) permission. If you’re concerned that well-intentioned advice will come off as intrusive, it may help to set the stage for the safety conversation beforehand.

“One of the things I teach is just to ask the person, ‘Hey, would you like me to watch out for you?’” Drebinger noted. “Most of the time, people are going to say ‘Yes.’”

One way to avoid seeming like a “know-it-all” is to explicitly communicate that you, too, are in need of a watchful eye.

“In the workplace, you want people to want to watch out for each other, and one of the best ways to do it is get them to ask each other, ‘Hey, watch out for me,’” Drebinger said.

He cautioned, however, that these exchanges need to take place organically, not in the forced atmosphere of a safety meeting.

“It has to be one-on-one. I have to say, ‘If you ever see me doing something unsafe, please let me know. If you ever see me near a hazard and you’re not sure whether I see it, please tell me about it.’ Because now you know that’s what I expect.”

Don’t be intimidated. Again, the secret to a positive exchange may be tempering emotions, particularly the fear of a negative “mind your own business” reaction. As Drebinger pointed out, “What’s worse – living with the fact that you could have prevented the injury, or somebody yelling at you?”

A worker also may need to battle his or her sense of humility and propriety if he or she is in the position of delivering advice to someone who is more experienced or senior. The truth is, these individuals may be more in need of safety messages than a worker realizes.

“We give deference to people we think are more experienced,” Koen said. “The problem with that is, they aren’t always the safest. Society’s willingness to accept risk has been reducing over time, and if they joined the company at a time when more risk was accepted, they may not have safe practices embedded in the way they do things.

“Also, the more we do something, the more we may be acting not out of conscious choice, but having the brain drive our behaviors in a very routine, habitual way, which may not include good safety practices.”

Lead by example and encourage others to do the same. Workers tend to do what those around them are doing, so it’s essential to demonstrate safe behaviors in addition to talking about them. Also, the importance of setting a good example may be a useful motivator for more experienced or senior workers, who may not see the need to follow the rules themselves but may want to protect their less-experienced co-workers.

“Even though you may have the skill to avoid that injury, or you may never need your safety glasses, the new person on the job doesn’t know what you know,” Drebinger said. “They need to wear them, and if you don’t, they’re not going to.”

A culture of collaboration

Ultimately, no matter how good someone is at crafting and delivering safety messages, success will be limited if company culture doesn’t value safety or encourage collaborative give and take.

“There’s an incorrect assumption that people will be open to receiving or giving safety feedback, forgetting that if their culture doesn’t invite questioning and feedback in general, it’s not going to invite safety feedback either,” Koen said. “The skills have to be taught, and the leadership has to lead from the place where they want their employees to be, as opposed to using techniques like scolding or being the safety police.”

Similar to any skill, the ability to initiate productive safety conversations not only must be taught, it also must be practiced. The good news is, the more workers participate in these kinds of discussions, the easier they will become, and the barriers to productive safety communication will seem less daunting.

It’s important to note that just as much effort should be put into developing the skill of receiving safety messages as giving them.

“When you teach people in an organization how to respond when people point safety issues out to them,” Drebinger said, “then those barriers are likely to disappear completely.”

No one can keep an entire organization safe on his or her own. Collaboration is needed to create a healthy atmosphere around safety conversations and a culture where everyone looks out for each other.

“In some organizations, the perception is that the safety person is in charge of safety and everything connected with it,” Scott said. “But it’s very difficult for one person to do everything that needs to be done. If you’ve got 100 people, you’ve got 100 pairs of eyes that can be looking every day for something that could put their co-workers at risk, and you have 100 people who could initiate that conversation in a positive way. Getting folks used to talking about safety gets them on board and involved, and it changes and grows the culture of the organization.”

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