Humor in safety

Learning through laughter has pros and cons

Photo: kali9/iStockphoto

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Subjects to avoid making jokes include politics, religion, race, sex, and anything to do with worker injuries and fatalities, the experts concur.

Hawk said he avoids any profanity “even when I have an audience full of truck drivers who I might end up hanging out and playing pool with in a bar later.”

McMichael added that safety trainers should avoid jokes about OSHA and other government agencies – you don’t know who could be in the audience. Also, it can build a base of distrust toward the agency.

When it comes to using videos shared on some social media of workers in potentially dangerous situations, Page-Bottorff has simple advice for other trainers.

“Leave it on social media,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a place in the classroom for it.”

If your goal is to make an impact with a real-life situation, he suggests using a written case study, such as those produced by the NIOSH Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Program. (See an example.)

Geography and culture can have a big impact on humor as well.

Before giving a presentation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Hawk said he was told not to include audience participation. But, in a city with numerous golf resorts, he went against the advice and asked for a show of hands from the 500 or so attendees to see who played the sport.

“Nobody raised their hand,” he said. “Not a single person.”

During that same presentation on making safety fun, Hawk noticed more reserved emotions from the audience. “It was a different laugh than I would get in Texas,” he said.

McMichael had a similar experience while presenting in Scotland. During the session, she uttered the phrase, “Oh, everything is sparkles and unicorns.”

Her client, who was British, said, “You don’t want to go there.”

Why? Because the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal. Dating back to Celtic mythology, it’s a symbol of purity, innocence and power.

“What’s humorous now is subject to the diversity of your audience, the global footprint of your audience, the gender, the age, all of those things,” McMichael said. “It can be very difficult. You’ve got to be ready to pivot as an instructor and a safety professional.”

"I always come back to the statement that you’re having fun for the sake of safety, not having fun in spite of safety."

Tim Page-Bottorff
Senior safety consultant, SafeStart

The audience and you

Knowing where your audience is from and the industries they work in is just the beginning.

Many pro speakers ask dozens of questions about their audience before a speaking engagement, including, for example, the types of people attending, what work group or division they represent, and whether any of them are coming off a shift.

For audiences that might display uneasiness about laughing, McMichael gives attendees permission, especially after a joke that is typically well received doesn’t connect.

“I say, ‘OK guys, that was a joke and this is the part where we laugh,’” she said.

She’ll also say in the introductory summary of her presentation, “Hey, we’re going to tell some jokes. We’re going to have a good time.”

When a first attempt at humor doesn’t go well, she dials back on future tries. “If it looks like I’m failing miserably, I’ll stop doing it,” she said.

Experience and self-evaluation also matter. Trainers who regularly present to their colleagues have the benefit of knowing their audiences well. New safety pros don’t typically have that luxury, so caution is advised when including humor in safety messages.

“You’ve got to honestly evaluate how funny of a person you are,” Jones said. “How good is your delivery? Don’t force it. Don’t try to be funny if that’s not your nature.”

Laughter’s impact

So why use humor at all in safety training? Simply put, a good laugh can positively affect our body and mind.

The Mayo Clinic explains that laughter elevates oxygen intake, which stimulates the heart and lungs while increasing endorphins released by your brain. Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain – resulting in improved circulation and relaxed muscles.

According to a study published in October 2016 in the journal Advances in Physiology Education, humor can create positive emotional and social connections, allowing for a rapport to be established between learners and educators and helping learners focus and retain information being presented.

“You’ve only got so much time with the people,” said Jones, who was a college speech instructor and an Air Force command briefer during his active duty. “So, the sooner you can break down the walls between you and get some shared communication going, the better.

“Humor is a pretty good way to do that. If we’re all sharing laughter, it puts us on an even plane. Using humor opens the door to get our safety message out.”

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