Do any of these conversations sound familiar?
Safety Manager: “Hey, put your safety glasses on!”
Supervisor: “You were driving that forklift way too fast over there. Slow down.”
Employee: “I was? I didn’t think I was going that fast.”
Employee 1: “You should get a spotter before you move that load.”
Employee 2: “No, I’m good. I don’t need a spotter for this one – it’s easy.”
Employee 1: “All right.”
Is this how conversations about safety tend to go in your workplace? If so, you’re not alone. In fact – would you call any of these a conversation? Too often, leaders simply point out unsafe behavior and tell employees to follow a safety rule. Similarly, employees often see coworkers taking unnecessary risks yet fail to address it in the moment.
A common theme running throughout these example interactions is that they are, in essence, just that – interactions. We could not really call any of these short exchanges a true conversation about safety. The dialogue in these simple examples ends as quickly as it begins, and there are no questions to understand the employee’s behavior or the circumstances behind it. Rather, an assumption is made about the observed behavior and there is little to show personal regard for the individual.
We are currently working with an organization that is working hard to change this. They specifically said that they want to “change the conversation around safety.” When I first heard this, it intrigued me but I wasn’t quite sure what they meant. As I worked with them and learned more about their safety culture, operations, and their leadership team, it made more and more sense. They were tired of the predictable interactions where supervisors reprimanded employees quickly for certain actions, without stopping to ask “why” they did what they did. They were tired of employees seeing coworkers gamble with their safety just to save a few minutes, all the while standing by and saying nothing. But mostly, they realized that if their safety culture was truly going to change, they had to have honest and genuine conversations about safety and talk about why people were comfortable taking unnecessary risks, making careless mistakes, and failing to take personal ownership for safety. To get to the next level in their safety culture, this had to change.
As you might expect, this aspect of safety culture cannot be simply changed overnight. It happens one day at a time, and one conversation at a time. And there are many contributing factors, and by addressing each one of these, an organization can take active steps to change the safety conversation. Here are some of those key factors.
Leaders role modeling the conversation. One of the biggest factors is leadership and the example that they set when interacting with employees. How do they react in the moment? How do they talk to employees after safety incidents, near hits, and or even just simple errors? These are very opportune moments for a leader to role model how a constructive safety conversation should go. The conversation should be constructive, respectful, and emphasize that the leader cares about the safety and well-being of the individual. This sets the tone for the general workforce and provides an example of how they can have good safety conversations in the future.
Ask more questions. As a supervisor or safety manager, when an employee violates a safety rule, you could simply stop at this: “You broke a safety policy. Don’t do that again.” Or, you could try to better understand why someone did what they did and consider their perspective. I am a firm believer that people generally do not come to work planning to get injured. They make decisions which, at the time, seem reasonable based on various circumstances. Whenever we make assumptions and fail to ask good questions, we miss great opportunities to uncover rich and useful information about hazards, risks, and various aspects of the true safety culture. As Stephen Covey would say, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Then, you will have opened the door to a much better dialogue and conversation about safety.
Our SafetyDNA guides our decisions about personal risk. Everyone has different strengths and blind spots when it comes to risk and personal safety. We all have our own unique mix of attitudes, personality traits, abilities, and values, and these all affect our safety behavior each and every day. If we know our tendencies, and those of our coworkers, this can help us to proactively make safer choices and create habits that decrease everyone’s exposure to risk. If I know that my coworker Joe tends to be very comfortable with risk, it helps me understand why he may drive the forklift too fast, or why he thinks it’s ok to work for a couple of minutes on a piece of equipment that is still “technically” energized. I can now be more proactive and anticipate situations where he might put himself at risk, have a meaningful conversation about it, and at least influence him to do the right thing.
Conversations can go in many different directions, but first they have to evolve from a quick exchange into an actual dialogue where all sides are heard and have a chance to voice their opinions about risks and safe behavior. By taking these simple steps, we can encourage and facilitate productive and collaborative conversations about safety that truly take our safety culture to the next level.
Tell us a little bit about how the safety conversations at your workplace go, and what types of conversations you would like to see at your organization!