Talking For the Sake of Making Noise

Safety talk

By Phil La Duke

Safety moments, Toolbox Talks, Safety Talks…whatever you call them they all amount to the same thing: discussions, often arbitrary, about safety. Conventional wisdom holds that raising awareness about safety concerns reduces the likelihood of worker injuries, but does it? And if awareness of safety concerns does indeed prevent injuries to what extent are safety talks effective in raising awareness.

Too often we in safety are Wikipidiots, we assert as fact that what is merely supposition. We accept more tripe as gospel than any other profession with the possible exception alchemists, astrologists, and professional psychics.

Is there anything wrong having a brief conversation about safety once a week? Yes and no. This is a bitter pill to swallow for some safety professionals who love to feel as though they are doing something even if that something is pointless. The major problems I have with safety talks or safety moments is that they are inconsistent, often irrelevant, frequently poorly delivered, lack context and in many cases poorly improvised.

Inconsistent

Safety talks range from safety micro lessons to a poorly written haikus about safety that get passed around the group who then sign off on them. This inconsistency isn’t limited to industry to industry or from company to company, rather I have seen inconsistencies in safety messaging from shift to shift and from supervisor to supervisor. With this kind of inconsistent message about safety can we really expect a consistent response to safety? We bear no small amount of culpability for the lack of consistency, after all, what training have we given supervisors not only in the delivery of safety talks, but in the purpose of safety talks. We need safety talks to be micro lessons about a specific safety topic, not a perverse version of children’s story hour.

Irrelevant

Relevancy of the safety talk might seem to contradict the need for consistency, but I really don’t think it is. If you are delivering a safety talk in the artic it’s probably appropriate to address the dangers of Polar Bear attacks but these dangers are less valuable in Equatorial Guinea. The topic is too specific and even though we want our messaging to be consistent, we never want to sacrifice relevance for consistency. Rather, we should strive for consistency in delivery while making it a point to ensure that the message is relevant to the population to whom we are talking.

Poor Delivery

The fact that many safety talks are poorly delivered is rarely disputed. Some of the best safety talks that I have seen were little more than a person reading from a sheet of paper and finishing with “any questions?”; either the message is important or it is not; if it is then we should do our utmost to deliver it seriously, deliberately, and articulately; and if it’s not important then don’t deliver it at all.

Lack of Context

Perhaps my biggest bone of contention is a lack of context. I have endured more safety talks on tick bites to last a lifetime. To be sure, tick bites represent a serious threat to many of my colleagues who routinely travel into tick-invested areas in the course of their jobs, but I don’t. Talks about ticks, while important to some, lack any context for me. Now I’m afraid to mow my lawn wearing anything less than a full Haz Mat suit. Does it hurt to warn me about ticks? Well yes and no. Yes, ticks are bad, they are blood-sucking parasites that carry Lyme’s disease, which is serious and hard to diagnose and requires lengthy treatment. (I’ve become something of both a tick expert and a tick neophyte—is there a word for knowing the all there is to know about a very vague topic?) Yet I had to do all my own safety research to work at the world’s largest abandoned factory. (Where I have been schilling safety for the last couple of months). Of course there is no value to have a safety talk to my colleagues (I work alone on this particular assignments) on asbestos, the dangers of packs of while dogs trained to fight to the death and gone feral, falling concrete, hidden tunnels that open up and swallow whole chunks of real estate, but THIS is what I needed. (For the record even ticks don’t live in this toxic wasteland, except for the feral dog and pheasants and garbage trees (poplars and cottonwoods) nothing seems capable of thriving here). So, because the context of my work differs so greatly from the context of my peers there is really no point in trying to find a common denominator between all of us. My experience is perhaps a bad example, since my colleagues and I have such diverse assignments, but what about a construction crew where the safety department compiles (and by “compiles” I mean slaps together from an online source) a serious of safety talks without considering context. Shouldn’t the circumstances of work dictate the content of the safety talk?

Poorly Improvised

Safety practitioners have to give their constituencies something to talk about otherwise production will improvise a safety talk. Meetings will begin with, “does anyone have a safety talk?” and after some awkward moments someone will sputter out something about school buses and the need to pay attention and be on the look out for school kids; not exactly what was intended when the idea of a safety talk was conceived.

I have mentioned in a couple of posts my tenure at a faith-based healthcare system and the values that were so overt that they shaped how everyone behaved, reacted, and to some degree thought. Every meeting was carefully planned and even the shortest meetings began with a reflection on one of the values, and for each meeting the organizer assigned someone to write and share the reflection. I think that companies should apply the same principles to safety. Instead of having a safety talk crammed down someone’s throat, or allow people to freewheel safety talks, why not implement the practice of safety reflections.

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