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July 24, 2017
Are your safety messages getting through? Communication just may be your most important task

The playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place.”  His statement will resonate with any safety professional who has wondered how an employee could have taken a risky shortcut or blatantly violated rules despite frequent messages on the subject. Here’s the bottom line—just because you convey a message doesn’t mean employees get it.

Making safety communications meaningful and effective is a subject as old as risk itself. In this Compliance Report, we focus on better understanding the problem and on improvement strategies, from high-tech to old-school.

The importance of getting your message across effectively cannot be overstated. Audit your day and you might be surprised to discover that communicating about safety—to your superiors, to new hires, to equipment vendors, and to colleagues who lead other departments—is a significant part of what you do.

So many ways to communicate

Good communication is essential to a safe workplace. Safety messages of all types must flow through the organization and be heard and heeded. As a safety professional, you’re the link between management and the workforce. You’re also the hub of safety communications. Many of these are written—from policy statements to safety manuals, safety data sheets (SDSs) and container labels, signs and posters, safety reports, audit findings, training materials, e-mails, incident reports, and bulletin board messages.

Then there are the many nonwritten communications, such as:

  • Verbal training, both formal and informal;
  • Safety reminders from supervisors or coworkers;
  • Positive reinforcement for safety performance;
  • Instructional briefings or toolbox talks;
  • Safety committee meetings;
  • Hazard reporting;
  • Behavioral safety observations;
  • Safety stand-downs;
  • Employee feedback; and
  • Informal exchanges in the field, on the shop floor, etc.

With such diversity, are there general principles that apply across channels to all safety communications? The British-based ideas agency Alive with Ideas says yes and suggests the following.

  • Develop short, simple messages. Information overload is a problem for organizations of all sizes. Develop top-line safety messages that can easily be digested, remembered, and applied.
  • Be clear and specific about what’s expected. Link messages to behaviors to make them real and actionable.
  • Address all elements of health and safety. Your communications should be wide-ranging and should also touch on issues like security and well-being.
  • Create a culture of involvement. Ask employees for input on improving communications. They will have clear ideas about what should be addressed.
  • Involve leaders. Make sure your leadership regularly endorses and articulates your key messages.
  • Keep it going. Keep your communications consistent and periodic. Ongoing communication that’s part of your overall culture may be more effective than sporadic campaigns.
  • Build safety into existing communications. A more integrated approach can help avoid information overload. Incorporate key safety messages into existing communications.

‘Don’t take dull for an answer’

If you’ve been using the same safety communication tactics for years, it may be time to hit the refresh button. Alive with Ideas recommends creative approaches, such as introducing drama into your training and awareness activities. One concept gaining traction in the U.K. is live workshops and interpersonal drama training. These require active audience participation and, advocates say, can bring safety messaging home in a lasting and memorable way.

Larry Pearlman, senior vice president of workforce strategy for Marsh Risk Consulting, recalled that of all the 2,000 or so safety meetings he’s attended, the best was a recent one at a manufacturing plant. A group of five women organized a safety skit to build awareness and drive compliance. “Normally, this is a dull topic. But these ladies don’t take dull for an answer.” In their skit, each presenter appeared with something out of compliance. The audience members were asked to shout out the problem as they saw it. As each presenter appeared, the audience members enjoyed shouting out observations like, “Shirt is untucked,” or “Knife is not in a safe place.” After the performance, one of the cast members discussed each of the rules and why it mattered.

Pearlman says the meeting was a resounding success with memorable messaging. “For your next safety meeting,” he recommends, “try empowering your employees to lead the safety topic and challenge them to engage their co-workers. Have a coach provide direct feedback. Provide guidelines to ensure the messages are relevant and clear. And have some fun!”

Some organizations find value in getting employees out of the building. This can mean sending them to a local Chamber of Commerce training course or a company- or industry-sponsored seminar or workshop. Getting away from regular duties and surroundings can heighten motivation and help employees better retain safety messaging.

Take advantage of the many video editing apps, and encourage teams to create safety videos, or sponsor a competition. Employees relate to familiar content, risks, and, surroundings, and they like to see familiar faces on-screen. The Internet is filled with ideas for making homegrown safety videos; your own Information Technology (IT) department may be able to lend support. Once the video lands on YouTube, you can be sure employees will pay attention.

Snacking on safety

Pervasive use of devices is eroding our capacity (and tolerance) for in-depth communications. Rather than lamenting that shift, Trident Communications LLC is running with it. According to President Ron Drasin, the New Jersey-based firm provides global and domestic clients, including Merck, Accenture, and the U.S. Army, with communication plans, content, and tools.

“Employees are overwhelmed with the volume of communications. There are many more channels to evaluate and thousands of places to get information.” Drasin says the result is overwhelmed employees and overstuffed in-boxes. Habits like checking social media and surfing the Internet have contributed to a shrinking of the attention span to between 8 and 12 seconds.

“We’ve been trained to process information very quickly and as a result nobody reads anymore.” To add insult to injury, Drasin points to the fact that consumer media is everywhere, competing with company information for the attention of employees. “I may be at my desk and instead of reading some new guidance or warnings from OSHA as I should, I decide to check on how the Mets did yesterday.”

Trident works to deliver safety and other employee information the way people have been trained to receive and process it. Drasin says the content is designed to grab an employee’s attention and quickly deliver about 300 words of “snackable content,” spurring viewers to read further. The material is engineered to do this according to length, frequency, duration, graphics, and layout. The communication is delivered via media that corresponds to users’ habits and preferences.

Getting out in front

The workplace is changing in fundamental ways, including how employees get and receive messages from their employers. Traditional communications are limiting. Says Drasin, “People have become tone deaf to email. Intranets are unpopular and clumsy. Companies continue to use posters and handouts, and there is a place for them. But if you need to communicate quickly and efficiently, online is the [best] choice.”

Trident uses a tool known as SnapComs that bypasses e-mail to deliver safety alerts or other pop-up messages. The messages appear in front of what an employee is viewing at the time. Messages informing employees of a fire hazard, spill, active shooter presence, or other real-time hazard can be created and sent in about 15 seconds. Other types of content like videos are strategically planned and delivered. The tool can be used across multiple channels, including as a changing screen saver, digital sign board, video, interactive survey, or online quiz.

Metrics engineered into the SnapComs platform track how long an employee left the message up and whether he or she clicked on an embedded link, such as a relevant OSHA standard or guidance document.

Like many experts, Drasin acknowledges that the most effective communication is between an employee and his or her direct manager. “But today’s employers cannot afford to deliver a message via any one channel,” he concludes.

Make it personal

Shawn Galloway, president and COO of ProAct Safety of The Woodlands, Texas, agrees that there’s nothing like the power of the individual when it comes to effective safety communications. The messenger must have more than the right information, however. Galloway says a communicator must understand the individuals receiving the message and what is important to them. “The information has to be personal, and it has to be ‘sticky,’” adds Galloway.

He believes that the person most responsible for shaping the values, behaviors, and results of a working group is the immediate supervisor. Unfortunately, says Galloway, supervisors are often “undertrained and underleveraged” as communicators. He encourages supervisors to talk less about facts and figures and to use stories and conversations to make safety content memorable.

People need to know why they’re being told something, and the parental “because I said so” voice does not work. While supervisors may want to be effective communicators, many have never been provided the proper skills or been held accountable in this area, he adds.

Make meetings matter

Whether it’s a safety huddle, toolbox talk, or all-hands safety meeting, getting personal and sticky can require cutting back on activities that are distracting and doing more things that add value.

Galloway advocates an “innovative and audacious” approach to making safety meetings an effective communications tool. An audacious safety meeting is a discussion framework that allows people to be inventive, brave, and fearless in their suggestions. “When we are free to be bold and consider delivering new, unexpected value, we can be creative, we can keep things fresh, and we can delight those we are all so eager to engage.”

Start with a strategy to improving safety meeting communications, Galloway suggests. Know what you’re trying to achieve. The next step is to meet with a team and a strong leader; hold a session where people leave their title (and ego) at the door, and work to achieve common goals.

Getting audacious

Asking key questions can help make your meetings audacious and authentic. Start with, “What’s a better way than what we’re currently doing?” Doing something because it’s been done a certain way for 10 or 15 years is not a formula for improvement. “Get people thinking differently,” Galloway advises. To get the creative juices flowing, ask people to brainstorm what they would do differently to communicate if money were not an issue.

He uses the “peanut butter rule” to encourage team members to offer ideas without fear they will be judged. If someone comes up with a response or suggestion such as “peanut butter,” which seems to make no sense, it should be welcomed like any other offered. It’s the job of the leader or facilitator to think about things like how practical or implementable an idea is without killing the creativity.

Other tips to make safety meetings more audacious and innovative:

  • Use the phrase “what if” to help unlock possibilities and encourage atypical thinking.
  • Ask people to think about making things better by not doing something, or by doing less of it. “Often in safety we think more is better, rather than better is better. Ask if what you’re doing is providing value, and if those affected can see the value.” This is useful whether the topic is communications or any other aspect of safety.
  • Ask the team to consider the craziest thing they can come up with (this goes back to the peanut butter rule) to achieve a goal. Breakthroughs come when people are free to share ideas that may seem strange or out of place.
  • Dig deep to uncover the answer to the question, “What are we not thinking about?”

Been there, seen that

If your safety communications are dulled out, uninspiring, or failing to reach their audience, you may want to consider bringing in an outside speaker or presenter. There’s always a certain allure to an outsider, and the very fact of seeing a new face can be energizing. If that face belongs to someone who has survived a tragic incident, you can expect ears to perk up even more.

Kevin Saunders, named one of the world’s 100 top motivational speakers, is a world-class Paralympic athlete who experienced a life-changing industrial accident. While working as a federal inspector in a Nebraska grain elevator in his early 20s, a grain elevator exploded, paralyzing Saunders from the chest down and confining him to a wheelchair. According to his website, at that moment, Kevin “lost not only 10 coworkers, but his freedom, his future, and the use of much of his body.”

Although there had been complaints about the operation’s safety, including by Saunders, the messages were apparently not heeded by the owner of the facility, the city of Corpus Christi, Texas. Ten people were killed and 25 were injured in the incident, which occurred on April 7, 1981.

In his compelling presentation, Kevin tells audiences that to create and sustain a safe work environment, it’s essential to act with integrity, eliminating tempting safety shortcuts and setting goals. One of his key messages is that being safety-conscious means staying aware and mindful and taking positive action every day to achieve desired results.

One reason safety messages, including warnings, aren’t heeded is that people think the unthinkable cannot happen to them. In this case, Saunders says the responsible parties were unwilling to spend the money it would have taken to make needed repairs. To Saunders, that refusal suggested that human life was less important than production.

Employees are often at fault as well in safety communication, especially when they fail to speak up about at-risk conditions. The messages they get about the need for reporting must be loud and frequent enough to motivate them to take steps that can save lives. Saunders tells a story about an individual who lost his leg due to a totally preventable situation. The individual routinely drove too fast in a forklift truck, a habit that was known to other employees, who failed to speak up about the known hazard.

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