By Phil La Duke
Years ago I worked security at a power plant. I wasn’t a peace officer, far from it; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to carry a big flashlight to protect myself. My job, plain and simply was to observe and report to actual peace officers, who would sort out the things that needed sorting. The job, while not exactly cerebral, did serve as a valuable source of life lessons, chief among them, that I never wanted to work in security again. Not to denigrate the security profession; it’s just not for me. One thing that the security firm for which I worked did particularly well was “roll call”.
Every shift began with a roll call; it reminded me of Hill Street Blues. All the officers were required to attend, and the shift commander ran down the things we needed to know do safety and effectively do our jobs.
These sessions weren’t some lame safety talk; we talked all the things that were unusual that day; what to watch for, things to consider, special precautions we might need to take to protect our lives, that sort of thing. Officers were expected to ask questions and we even talked about things that had happened at other sites and what the circumstances needed to be for something similar to happen at our site. We were expected to be prepared at all times and for that to happen our leaders had to provide us will all the information we needed to do our jobs.
Contrast that to the average safety talk where bored workers take turns pretending to read a memo passed around before scrawling out a signature that “proves” that they had the information read to them and that they understood it.
Not all safety talks are this of course, but enough of them are that it constitutes a problem. Even some of the best-intentioned and executed safety talks aren’t all that great. Safety professionals tend to pick the topic of the month (and I am speaking literally here—this isn’t just a figure of speech) and prepare a presentation on it. The problem is that the topic of the month tends to be either so generic that nobody cares, it elicits a, “gee, no kidding?” response that nobody takes all that seriously. I once heard a safety talk that focused on cold weather. The crux of the talk was that it is unseasonably cold, and that cold, as it turns out, can harm you. In fact, it went on to say that being exposed to the cold for as little as 10 minutes can cause physical damage. Is there anyone above the age of five that doesn’t know that cold weather conditions can harm you? This safety talk, and to be fair, this was actually a local news broadcast “safety tip” but I’ve seen safety talks equally inane. These kinds of safety talks might as well be telling seasoned construction workers not to stick their mouths on frosted metal; good advice but is it really necessary?
Good Safety Talks should be: contextual, practical, and specific.
Too often safety talks lack any real context. Telling workers to be careful because roads will be slippery isn’t nearly as useful as reminding workers that when they are leaving the site that there is a particularly sharp and sloped curve that will likely be icy and drivers should reduce their customary speeds by at least 10 mph. By framing the warning in a context the workers can easily understand and to which they can relate the workers are more likely not only to heed the warning, but also far more likely to add to the discussion by drawing on their own experiences. Using our example, workers might also point to other areas where similar dangers are present.
In some cases, the advice offered in safety talks just isn’t practical. Workers are left scratching their heads about exactly what to do with the information offered. I’m reminded of safety talks that remind workers to always tie off when working above 10 feet, but offer no solutions for situation where there is nothing to which one can effectively tie off. These safety talks offer no alternative solutions for situations where the standard protections are available or feasible. Impractical safety talks are dangerous because they leave workers to their own designs, and often the worker—faced with no practical options—may take uncalculated and unnecessary risks.
Telling me to be careful is like telling me you love me; it’s a sweet sentiment, but it really does nothing to protect me. If instead of warning me to be careful because of high winds the safety talk should talk about the specific, extraordinary precaution workers should take when working at heights in windy conditions. The safety talk should also clearly indicate how strong the winds can be before work must be suspended, and include a practical and simple way to measure the wind speed (workers seldom have sophisticated weather forecasting equipment and so they will need a common sense way to gauge when it is no longer safe to work.) And finally, the safety talk should detail the procedure(s) that they must follow if things do go wrong despite their best efforts.
The Harm In Talking About Nothing
Many companies require that each shift, meeting, or activity begin with a safety talk of some sort (a safety meditation, safety thought of the day, etc.) with the reasoning being that it can’t hurt to talk about safety. I’m not against this practice per se, but as with so many other things that—when done poorly—do more harm than good, everyone should be more mindful of insuring that these events are done properly and add real value. Talking about safety for its own sake desensitizes workers and when a real warning is warranted they are then too likely to turn a deaf ear.