Workplace Solutions Education Safety program management


What are the safety benefits of teaching workers to tell stories?

Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images

Responding is Jack Jackson, senior safety consultant, SafeStart, Belleville, Ontario.

Storytelling makes the safety world go round. I’ve seen high-quality storytelling launch mediocre compliance rates into orbit, and I’ve seen a lack of storytelling cause an otherwise robust safety program to fail to launch. At its core, storytelling engages employees in safety through discussion and narrative.

When we tell stories about incidents and near misses, or about proper protocols being followed, we show workers what compliance rules and violations look like in real life. Storytelling fits naturally into existing workplace processes, as we can tell stories in training sessions, toolbox talks and one-on-one conversations.

As an engagement tactic, storytelling is second to none. Research shows that humans are hardwired to positively respond to narratives. Compelling stories cause the brain to release oxytocin, which, according to the Harvard Business Review, makes people more likely to look out for others and better attend to their own needs. Studies show that narratives add perceived value to products and messages and increase attention. Plus, they’re stickier than stats. Professor Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University says, “Stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.”

These effects occur both when workers listen to stories and when they tell them. The real magic of storytelling in safety happens when you get workers telling stories to each other. That way, they’re exposed to real, credible stories from their peers and supervisors, and are also actively engaged in sharing their own narratives – creating a pervasive sense of connection and identity in the workplace.

When workers share stories, it creates a vicarious learning experience for the listener. That means workers have more learning opportunities, and, given how “sticky” stories can be, each opportunity better helps with knowledge retention.

But beware – there’s a catch. Not all stories are created equal. To reap the benefits of storytelling in safety, you must learn how to tell an effective safety story yourself. Then, you need to convey that to workers. It takes some practice on your part, and then some coaching as you prompt workers to tell effective stories. But the effort is worth it for the payoff.

A good safety story has a couple of different elements. It should be real, it should be relevant to the audience and it should have clear stakes (which you can think of as a form of dramatic tension).

The most effective stories are often about things that happened to someone personally, but they can also be about an event they witnessed.

Be clear about where your story takes place and who it concerns, and make sure to introduce contributing factors to the incident – whether they’re environmental (such as a trip hazard) or human factors (such as fatigue after a long shift).

The story should also discuss what happened, and whether it was a near miss, an injury or a disaster averted because compliance rules were followed. I’ve also found that the best endings include how the outcome could have been worse.

Becoming a better storyteller takes real practice. Start telling your own stories in training and encourage workers to tell their own by asking them to share experiences during toolbox talks.

Provide positive feedback and a few tips, and before long, the sound of safety narratives in your workplace will power your path to astronomical compliance rates.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

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