Five-Step Guide for a Safety Conversation

bubbles-normal-800pxIt takes at least two people to have a conversation. For a conversation to be effective, each person needs to alternatively talk and listen. Unfortunately, some leaders are prone to lecturing, with very little listening. This ineffective communication style isn’t isolated to senior leaders who ascribe to the command-and-control approach to management. It can be seen at all levels of organizations.

The prevalent communication style of managers and supervisors is a barometer of the safety culture. Occasional, one-way safety conversations are telltale signs of a culture of compliance. Frequent, interactive safety conversations are indicative of a culture of commitment.

As indicated in a previous post, the motive for having a conversation significantly influences the safety culture.  To recap:

  • If the reason you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize and seek compliance through correction.
  • If the reason you have any safety conversation is because you care, the approach will be to coach and seek commitment through collaboration.

One communication model1 suggests that an effective organizational conversation has four attributes: intimacy (building trust and listening), interactivity (promoting discussion), inclusion (collaborating on solutions), and intentionality (sharing a common purpose).

In this article, I introduce a guide for an effective safety conversation – one that starts with caring.  This guide incorporates the four attributes of an effective conversation. It also stimulates a conversation that enables coaching and collaboration.

Five-Step Guide for a Safety ConversationTM

5-Step Safety Conversation

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Control or Caring? What is your motive for a safety conversation?

Most organizations that seek to achieve safety excellence realize that this performance level can only be attained with strong leadership.  When it comes to safety, there are two prevalent leadership philosophies. There is a stark contrast between the resulting safety cultures. We can better understand the differences by realizing that each is grounded in very different motives.  One approach emphasizes control, while the other starts with caring.

Control = Compliance

Some managers define “strong leadership” as carrying a big stick.  These managers believe that any time there is an injury or near miss, their principal responsibility is to hold people accountable.  In practice, this means that the primary reason they have any safety conversation is to exert more control.

These managers believe that if people would simply comply with the policies, rules, and procedures, then no one would get hurt.  Armed with this reasoning, they strive for greater control by criticizing actions that are inconsistent with established policies.  Safety conversations center on correcting errant behaviors through counseling or discipline.

Culture of ComplianceThis safety philosophy leads to a Culture of Compliance.

The graphic shown here demonstrates the actions which lead to this kind of safety culture, which is summarized in the following statement:

If the reason (Why) you have any safety conversation is to exert control, the approach will be to criticize (How) and seek compliance through correction (What).

A Culture of Compliance results in a false sense of improved safety performance, because many incidents are driven underground.  The official safety numbers may look good. However, the number of unreported near misses and unrecorded minor injuries are indicative of an insidious safety culture. Because the causes are never acknowledged and addressed, they accumulate until a significant event occurs. Continue reading

Social Influence – A Prime Driver of Workplace Safety

Social InfluenceWe are influenced by the actions of others more than we may care to admit. Many researchers have confirmed that social influence has a powerful effect on our decisions.

We experience many forms of social influence, although we probably don’t think about it.  Perhaps you purchased something after hearing about it from a friend or family member.  Or you may have joined an organization or club because someone you know is one of the members.  Throughout our lives, we have been powerfully persuaded or casually nudged thousands of times to make a decision or take an action because of social influence.

Indeed, the authors of Influencer contend that there are six sources of influence.  They refer to one of these influences as social motivation (although most of us think of this as peer pressure).

Let’s review a recent study by Pedro Gardette of Stanford that supports this concept. He wanted to measure the effect of social influence on the purchasing patterns of airline passengers. Continue reading

Dear Supervisor – Do you expect me to be injured?

Safety Expectations

Image courtesy of Atlantic Training

One of my summer jobs was working at a busy warehouse, filling wooden pallets with various orders of canned fruit or juice products. Forklifts then loaded the pallets on a trailer for shipping.

I remember the day I filled out the employment application.  The job was on second shift.  It was hard to find anyone who wanted to work these hours, so I was hired.  The woman from human resources asked me if I could start working the same night.  I showed up 30 minutes before my shift for orientation.  While I don’t recall everything that was said, the supervisor’s safety expectations were memorable.  The speech from Lyle went something like this:

“Most of these guys have been working here for more than 15 years.  So ask them anything you want to know.  The work isn’t that hard, but you can expect to get a few minor injuries before the summer is over.  Nothing serious – maybe a gash from a box cutter or a sore toe from a case that is dropped accidentally. No open-toed shoes, by the way.  There’s a first aid kit in the break room.  If you need something more than a bandage or ointment, come see me.  Now look, the number one thing you need to remember is that those guys running the forklifts are moving fast.  The sooner we get these trucks loaded, the more time we all have at the end of the shift to relax.  So stay clear of them at all times. They have the right-of-way in the aisles.  Any questions?”

What questions would an 18-year-old ask?  I had none.

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Are you priming your employees to be safe or to take risks?

Priming with wordsImagine you are part of a team that has been assigned a particularly difficult maintenance job.  It will take three craftsmen at least eight hours to complete this task.  Your supervisor (Jeff) is coordinating a long list of planned jobs as part of a large shutdown.  Before you go to the work site, Jeff provides a pre-job brief:

“OK, guys – listen up.  We have to replace the large pump in the northwest corner of the basement.  As you know, it’s in a very tight space with no head room and there isn’t much ventilation or lighting down there – so make sure you hook up a fan and some temporary lighting.  This is a critical path job, so I need you guys to get started on it ASAP.  The guys on the production line will be waiting on this job before they can start back up.  We’re behind on shipping customer orders, so there’s some heat from upper management to get in, get out, and get running. Don’t take any more time than is necessary to get the pump changed out.  Keep any breaks to a minimum.  I know you guys always work at a good pace.  That’s why I teamed you up on this job – to get it done quickly.  I’ll be checking on the job every hour to see if we are on schedule.  If you need anything, get me on the radio and I will rush whatever you need to the work site.  If you run into any problems and aren’t sure what to do – use your judgment and do whatever takes the least amount of time.  I know I can count on you guys to get this job done right and on time. I gotta go … but don’t hesitate to yell if you need anything! 

Oh…. and be safe.” Continue reading

Safety Conversations: Preventive or Diagnostic Care?

stethoscopeFamily doctor visits usually have one of two purposes: either you are having a routine check-up to make sure that everything is okay with your health (preventive care) or you have an illness and your doctor wants to find the cause (diagnostic care).  We can use health care as a metaphor to consider the approaches that we take when having a safety conversation.

A doctor who is diagnosing an illness or disease relies upon a series of questions and tests.  If she suspects heart disease, for example, she may inquire about the patient’s smoking, eating, and exercise habits.  She will also want to understand the patient’s family health history.  These provide clues that may support her initial diagnosis, which can be confirmed with further testing.

Using this analogy, many supervisors and managers focus on providing diagnostic services when it comes to safety.  After someone has an injury, they ask a series of diagnostic questions, aimed at determining why the injury occurred.  What were the factors that may have contributed to the injury? Did they have a history of other injuries? Did they make choices that increased their risk of injury? Continue reading