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4 Simple Ways to Lay Out a Vision for Safety

August 6, 2014

It’s one of my favorite movie scenes ever – the part in Braveheart where William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) gives his famous speech to the Scottish warriors while he’s on horseback.  They are vastly outclassed and outmanned by the huge army of England, who rules over Scotland at the time, and the last thing they want to do is fight and be annihilated by their foe.  They don’t want to be there.  But then the dramatic music starts up, and Wallace rides in on horseback to deliver a short, but inspiring, chest-thumping speech that completely changes the demeanor of the army and pumps them up for the fight of their life.  He ends by exclaiming, “…one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!”  and they are ready for battle against Longshanks’ mighty army.  It’s a great cinematic moment, and it makes me think of famous speeches in history that have been actually recorded prior to major battles, such as King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Patton’s speech, and many others.  These leaders gave their people a simple but inspiring vision that they understood and which motivated them during a really challenging time to give it their all for a greater purpose.460550883

One thing I cannot help but wonder is – what if we had the same type of conviction and emotion when we talked to our people about…safety?  What if our toolbox meetings and safety briefings (at least occasionally) actually moved people just a little bit and got them truly motivated to work safely?  Too often, safety meetings and updates are a ho-hum, boring exercise that is about as exciting as watching C-SPAN (no offense to those who watch that channel of course).  Supervisors, managers, or foremen usually mean well, but a lot of times safety meetings just come across as ‘check the box’ activities where there are few surprises, little energy, and nothing personal about them.  And more importantly, many leaders fail to give their people any kind of real “vision” for safety.  I don’t mean some big, fancy, articulate concept; I just mean a simple, short message about safety that comes from the heart and that people can summarize in a sentence or two.

Here’s a question for you:  If someone asked your employees to summarize your vision for safety, would they be able to do so in 10 seconds or less?  Do they know why you think safety is important?  Can they easily recall what things you emphasize the most when it comes to keeping people safe?  If not, perhaps you should re-examine what exactly your vision for safety is, and whether you are laying it out for people clearly and consistently.

We don’t have to be Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr. in order to rally our people around safety.  You can grab their attention and motivate them to work safely while still being yourself and keeping it real!   Some of us can probably already do this well, but for many of us, we just need to make a few simple adjustments and add a few new tricks to our repertoire in order to improve our skills in this area.  Here are a few basic things you can do to Lay Out Your Vision and motivate your team more when you address them about safety:

  1. Come up with your signature safety “message.”  What do you feel most strongly about when it comes to safety?  What do you think is the biggest hazard or risk to employees in your company or department?  While there are many issues or aspects of safety that you probably focus on, try to identify the most critical and summarize them into a few high-level thoughts or statements that capture what you think is most important.  You might have a phrase or tag line that you like to say, or perhaps it’s just reiterating the biggest hazards or safety behaviors at your company in a new way.  The important thing is that you truly believe it impacts safety, that your message is consistent, and that people can easily understand AND remember it long after the meeting is finished.
  1. Show some emotion.  A lot of people in industrial settings are not big talkers, and let’s face it – they are not the most “emotional” people.  Most people in places like manufacturing plants, warehouses, or refineries, for example, don’t tend to be very dramatic, to say the least.  But with safety, there should be at least some passion and excitement behind the message because it’s about caring for people and making sure they go home every day to their families.  Think about some of the things that you DO show passion and emotion for – whether you’re your family and loved ones, cheering for your favorite sports team, or just a long-time hobby of yours.  Those are things that you can naturally get passionate about in a conversation!   Try to translate some of that same passion and excitement to your next safety meeting and talk about personal safety with the same type of mindset.  Your message will have a little more edge to it and people will notice and be more tuned in.
  1. Make it personal.  Like most things, safety is easier to internalize when it’s personal. When you share a personal story or a lesson learned and how it impacted you on a personal level, people can then relate to it more easily.  It also makes it a lot more genuine.  So the next time you’re talking about a safety policy or safety issue at work, try to mention one specific way in which it relates to you.  It might be as simple as a recent bruise you got while doing yard work, or a serious injury that occurred to someone you were close to.  Either way, adding a personal touch shows people why you care about that particular safety topic.
  1. Stay positive.  It’s easy to get discouraged or frustrated when things go wrong, or when people make poor decisions or even refuse to work safely.  But staying positive is critical as a safety leader.  Your vision for safety has to make it through good times and bad.  Just like the famous speeches of leaders, your message has to be strong and consistent when morale is down or when people feel like they have already done enough.  Do your best to be positive in your language and in how you respond to tough questions or negative, cynical comments.  Remember that as a safety leader, you must set the tone for your people and the more positive you are, the more positive they will be over time.

Applying these simple tips will help you lay out a vision for safety that is personal to you and which makes sense to people.  This will go a long way in helping you or your company’s leaders to better engage employees around safety and further enhance your safety culture.

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Corporate Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.