Making Safety Talks Better

This week I will be delivering tow presentations at the Michigan Safety Conference in Grand Rapids, MI.  With between 1,500 and 2,000 expected attendees, the Michigan Safety Conference is one of the largest regional conferences in the world (in fact, it is far larger than many International safety conferences.) For those of you who won’t be attending, I thought you might like to see an advanced, sneak peak, of my talk.—Phil

ImageSomewhere in the world right now a worker is being injured, and the response to that injury will be a ham-fisted, hackneyed “safety talk” that will amount to little more than an admonishment that workers had ought to be a damned site more careful in the future..

All over the world the same scenario plays out: a worker is injured, a likely cause is determined, the safety professional is asked to put together a safety talk, that a supervisor may or may not do a quality job delivering a brief speech to the team. Far too often, the delivery of a safety talk is a lackluster, half-hearted, non-event that bores the worker and inconveniences the supervisor.

Why Safety Talks Need to Be Better

Safety talks are the single most common device used to communicate a hazard that has already injured someone.  When done well, a safety talk can be instrumental in helping to contain a hazard until it can be permanently corrected.  Safety talks are quick to deploy, easy to deliver, and inexpensive.  But safety talks are often slapped together, poorly planned, and not taken seriously by supervisors and workers.

Issues With Safety Talks

A principle problem with safety talks is that they tend to be reactionary and external to our safety strategy—scarce few safety talks are given before someone has been injured, rather they tend to be given to alert workers of a danger that has already harmed someone else.  Even as organizations try to be more and more proactive, safety talks remain a reactive and ineffectual response to a single contributor instead of a well thought out discussion about a hazard or system problem. Beyond poorly created or ill-timed safety talks in many case the “safety talk” consists of a supervisor passing a written “talk” around and having the team members read and sign the “talk”; the entire exercise is a pointless waste of time.

Another issue I have with safety talks is that they perpetuate the idea that safety is somehow external to the core business systems. Far from hardwiring safety within our business systems, safety talks remind us that there are inconvenient little impediments to our job that the safety department wants us to address in addition to our work.

Tips for Making Safety Talks Better

  • Discontinue the yearlong safety talk schedules. Many organizations buy or create a year’s worth of safety talks and carefully schedule a weekly or monthly talk months ahead of time.  Here is a newsflash—YOU AREN’T WRITING A SAFETY MAGAZINE.  It’s cute that you like to pretend that your safety talk program has an editorial agenda, but “cute” turns off workers, embarrasses supervisors and generally trivializes the topic being presented.  Your safety talk topic should be directly aligned to changes in operations that temporarily heighten a particular risk.
  • Create Safety Dialogs Not Monologs. Believe it or not, the people who have the most exhaustive and highest quality body of knowledge about the safety of the workplace are the workers themselves.  By structuring the safety talk as a conversation instead of recrimination or condescension not only can the supervisor communicate important safety information but he or she can also receive important suggestions for making the workplace safer.  The safety talk should be a conversation, not a speech.
  • Eliminate Safety Sermons. Having a dialog about the potential process failures is important, but unless the person initiating the dialog is very careful, the talk can quickly degrade into a lecture about how people ought to be more careful. Those who initiate pre-shift dialog must be mindful that the intent of such activities is as much to gather information, as it is to disseminate it

So instead of having a supervisor read a script designed to warn workers of a hazard, the focus should be on engaging the workers. A pre-shift dialog might sound something like this:

Leader: Good morning everyone, let’s take a look at what we have in store for us today. For starters, our standard production number is twenty, but we have four special orders that we need to work into our shift. We will also have a customer visit today and they will be in our area at about 11:30 a.m. So what are the challenges we’re likely to face making today’s goals?

Team Member 1: Well, at 11:30 we are scheduled to take our lunch break, so that shouldn’t effect us in any way.

Team Member 2: Yes, but if it’s possible maybe it would be smart to move the time? I’m just thinking that the customers might want to see us working. I know that having visitors in the area means we have to be extra alert, but I think it’s worth it.

Leader: I think that’s a great suggestion, but I don’t know how full their schedule is. I’ll check it out.

Team Member 3: We also need to consider that they may have a particular process that they want to see . . . it’s not necessarily that they don’t care what we do here, but they may have other priorities.

Team Member 1: And we need to remember that just because they are scheduled to be here at 11:30, they may turn out to be early or late. And if they are expecting production to be down, they may not wear the appropriate PPE. We should have some on hand just in case.

This example may seem implausible to some, but I have seen actual meetings very much like this on a regular basis. The focus is on the process and protecting both the people from the process and vice versa. Notice that the tone of the discussion centers on changes and what that means to the process. Since the process is ostensibly designed so that no one gets hurt, even the smallest changes to the process can heighten the risk of disrupting operations, mistakes, defects, and injuries. Discussing safety in the context in which the work is performed is far more effective than reading a sheet about blood-borne pathogens.

  • Ask the workers to suggest topics. As I previously mentioned, workers have a wealth of information about the dangers in the workplace, and a good way to address the topics they feel are most relevant is to ask them for their suggestions.  You may get the occasional wise crack, but even wise cracks can be important windows into the overall mood and atmosphere of the workplace.
  • Involve the supervisor in writing the talks. Perhaps the greatest influence on the level of success of a safety talks is the performance of the supervisor, to whit, if a supervisor thinks the safety talk isn’t necessary or credible he or she will likely not be able to deliver the talk with the sincerity it requires.  A key way to ensure that the safety talks resonates with supervisors is to enlist their aid in developing a safety talk that is appropriate to the specific hazards associated with their work areas and processes.
  • Embed safety topics in pre-shift huddles or rounds. Consider, for example, a daily pre-shift meeting where the team discusses unusual circumstances that they will face in the work for the day ahead.  In law enforcement and security they call these meetings &”roll calls”, in manufacturing these meetings are called & “huddle meetings” and in healthcare these meetings are often referred to as “rounds” (okay rounds are a bit different, but for our purposes they serve a similar purpose) but whatever the sessions are called, the intent is the same: to identify the process variation that jeopardizes the optimum performance of the tasks required. The purpose of a pre-shift huddle or making the rounds in a work area is to discuss the challenges associated with the day’s work.  Safety needs to be embedded into these talks not treated as a separate topic.
  • Be timely and relevant.  It may seem like it goes without saying that safety talks have the greatest impact when they are delivered in propinquity to an event or hazardous situation. For example, if a manufacturer is running a batch of prototype parts or a hospital gears up for a holiday weekend it would be wise to have a safety talk about the issues associated with these deviations from the standard shortly before those events.
  • Be proactive. A good safety talk should be the result of an analysis of changes from the standard operating conditions. Using the examples above, the model changes may change the physical foot print of the process and workers may need to work outside the normal work area. Or the holiday weekend may bring more injured and inebriated into the Emergency department of the hospital.  In either case the safety talk should be a proactive discussion of the contingency plans that Operations has developed for dealing with these possible situations.
  • Create safety talks in-house. There are many high quality safety talks that are commercially available.  These products should be used as templates and must be customized for use in your environment.  Commercial safety talks can never address your specific needs, but they do form a nice template from which to work.
  • Link safety talks to near misses. Near misses—situations where an injury could have occurred but didn’t—provide excellent opportunity to talk about safety in real-life and relevant terms.  Workers will respond far better to something that almost happened over something that theoretically could happen.  While it is often difficult to get workers to report near misses it is usually quite easy to have them share their experiences through the telling of “war stories”. Using safety talks to share the results of read across (the practice of determining where else in the organization a similar problem might exist to cause problems.
  • Avoid the safety horror stories. Too often safety talks become horror stories like those devised to frighten children into behaving.  Adults don’t respond well to condescension or scare tactics.  Present the fact of the hazard openly, honestly, and accurately and spare the hyperbole.

Preparing The Supervisors To Make Better Safety Talks

The biggest factor in whether or not safety talks/pre-shift dialogs improve the competency and credibility of those who deliver them.  Many safety professionals are quick to criticize the performance of the supervisor far fewer are prepared to do anything about it. Supervisors and team leaders should be trained in active listening. The safety professionals should coach these individuals in how to draw individuals into a conversation by talking to them rather than at them. Ideally, the safety professional will demonstrate the correct way to have a dialog about safety in the larger operational context and will model this behavior in his or her everyday work.

Safety talks shouldn’t be discontinued, but they do need to be dramatically redesigned so that they are a part of a larger conversation about keeping the organization running smoothly. After all, what organization can accurately claim that it is efficiently operating and successful at anything when it injures its workers in the pursuit of its goals?

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