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October 04, 2013
Can better communication improve workplace safety?

Absolutely! Start here with tips you can use today.

Safety professionals focus on actions like training, recordkeeping, monitoring risks, and preparing budgets. An integral part of every action is communication—what you say and how you say it. In this article, the focus is on improving safety communications for better performance.

Larry Hansen: L2H—Speaking of Safety

Certified safety professional Larry Hansen is president of L2H—Speaking of Safety Excellence (http://www.l2hsos.com), a Florida-based consulting group. He says the problem with most safety communication is that the communicator fails to consider the purpose of the message.

Most people believe the goal of communication is to pass on information, but in a workplace setting the purpose is more often to achieve a desired action or behavior change. For example, if your intent is simply to share information, a “no smoking” sign outside a building will advise employees and visitors that they cannot light up, but it will have no effect on their smoking behavior. If your goal is to get them to smoke less or quit, a sign is useless unless it is accompanied by a policy, smoking cessation classes, consequences for noncompliance, ways to measure behavior change, or other concrete measures.

Hansen says that communication that succeeds in changing behavior must (1) have the right message, (2) be delivered in the right way, (3) have meaning for those who receive it, and (4) be continuously monitored. The hardest of these to achieve is meaning. A sign on the door conveys little, but hearing accounts about lives changed by quitting smoking would mean much more to employees, he suggests.

Leaders drive, supervisors deliver

Hansen stresses that safety communication must be leadership-driven and first-line-delivered. Senior leaders must show their commitment to safety through videos, meetings with employees, informal walkarounds, newsletter articles, adherence to safety rules, and other means.

Hansen cites research showing that employees look primarily to the corner office to find out what’s important at their workplace. “If they don’t see leadership being concerned, they aren’t either,” he adds.

First-line supervisors provide an all-important link between the corporate message and the employee who needs to hear and internalize it. Their daily interaction is an opportunity for dialogue around safety, which most workers value.

“Effective communication must be two ways,” says Hansen. It’s not about imposing rules on people but about putting a value on the table and allowing people to discuss it and come to agreement. Then they will accept it much more easily.

Effective safety communication should be delivered face-to-face by supervisors. It should be relevant to employees and their work, and it should answer the question, “what’s in it for me?”

Integrate safety into communications

Hansen also recommends that safety be integrated into an organization’s vision, values, and mission. For example:

  • Core guidance documents like vision and mission statements should address safety in addition to value for customers, commitment to innovation, service delivery, etc.
  • Safety should be part of one-on-one contacts with direct reports. Many studies have identified a link between perceptions of employee satisfaction and workplace safety. Hansen says supervisors play a key role in enhancing that level of satisfaction.
  • Formal meetings and training sessions should always include safety. At many businesses, every meeting, no matter its primary purpose, starts with a brief safety communication.
  • Establish feedback systems, including safety suggestion programs that emphasize listening and acting on information.
  • Pay attention to measurement and metrics, including reports, scorecards, and performance assessments. If an organization proclaims the importance of safety but only measures production quality and delivery, employees come to believe safety can be compromised. The old adage “what gets measured gets done” applies.
  • Provide recognition and rewards that communicate the organization’s values. The reward can be as simple as a sincere “thanks” that costs nothing to deliver but serves as positive reinforcement.
  • Make sure management actions communicate the safety commitment. Hansen cites one company where the safety budget is exempt from the review-and-trim process that applies to the budgets of all other departments. This sends employees the message that safety is not negotiable.

Josh Williams: Safety Performance Solutions

Safety Performance Solutions (http://www.safetyperformance.com) is an international firm that specializes in behavior-based safety and safety culture assessment. Josh Williams is senior project manager and author of the book Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention.

He calls effective communication “the cornerstone of a healthy organizational safety culture” and points to causes of failed communication, including:

  • Lack of information or knowledge,
  • Not clearly explaining goals and priorities,
  • Not listening,
  • Failing to ask questions,
  • Preconceived ideas,
  • Jumping to conclusions,
  • Not understanding others’ needs,
  • Losing patience and allowing discussions to become heated,
  • Time pressure,
  • Failure to explore all options, and
  • Poor communication pattern and style.

According to Williams, the biggest communications mistake managers make is to separate themselves from their employees. He is a firm believer in management by walking around, or “MBWA.” Being present and in front of people is the best way to communicate your commitment.

Those who practice MBWA know what’s going on in their facilities and with their people. They spend time on the plant floor, learning about the risks employees face and identifying issues before they become problems.

“In healthy organizations, managers and hourly people spend time together. Employees are comfortable bringing up issues because they know that, as in a family, management cares,” Williams adds.

Like L2H’s Larry Hansen, Williams believes supervisors play a central role in safety communications. One potential challenge is that many supervisors earned the position due to operational or technical competence, but they may not have the communication and people skills that go along with the job.

One of the most important of those skills is getting back to people who ask questions or express concerns. “I hear all the time from people who told their supervisor something or filled out a form, but never heard back from anyone, and the impression is that no one cares. I stress with management and supervisors that you have to get back to them, even if it’s bad news.”

Empathic communication

THE STAKES ARE HIGH WHEN TOWER AND PILOTS TALK!

In March 2014, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (http://www.NATCA.org) will hold its annual conference on Communicating for Safety. During in-flight conversations between controllers and pilots, the need for clear communication is essential.

Hansen chairs the conference and is a 25-year veteran controller. He considers radio or computer communications with pilots the lifeblood of aviation safety.

There are several causes of flawed communication with relevance inside and outside of the cockpit. According to Hansen, these include:

  • Talking too fast,
  • Not following the prescribed phraseology,
  • Lack of training, and
  • Inconsistencies in how people interpret the rules.

What about the effect of stress on communications? How do controllers stay cool in such a high-pressure environment? Hansen says stress is a function of the need to “make sure everybody gets where they need to get safely.”

Even with 15 to 20 planes on a controller’s frequency, the stress is relatively low if the weather is perfect and nothing unusual is going on. But once storms, tail winds, clouds, and rain enter the picture, controllers have to help pilots move around the weather, causing a much more stressful situation.

The goal is to keep the stress from hampering communications. While this isn’t specifically taught during the extensive training, it is something successful controllers must learn on the job. “The more experience, the more we know how to get out of certain situations,” Hansen says.

Another essential communication skill for controllers is being able to speak up about how something should be done, whether that’s in conversation with a pilot or with another controller.

Concludes Hansen, “Everything we do is related to safety. It’s part of who we are.”

How do you create a culture in which employees are comfortable speaking up? A key element is training and monitoring the way supervisors speak to their employees. Williams is a proponent of what he calls “empathic communication.”

An employee on the job for 3 months can easily feel intimidated by a 30-year supervisor armed with a laundry list of risky behaviors observed in the less-experienced worker. But if the communication is respectful and the speaker communicates with empathy, there’s a much better chance the message will be heard and the behavior will be changed.

Williams says the first few minutes of a conversation about safety are essential, setting the tone for the rest of the discussion. He suggests openers like, “This doesn’t feel right to me. What do you think?” or “You’ve been around quite a while—what’s your opinion?”

On the flip side, the fact that a task has been done a certain way for years does not necessarily mean that it’s being done the safest way. Supervisors must be genuinely open to employees’ ideas and new ways of working. Williams recommends the following communication tips for supervisors:

  • Solicit opinions and ideas from others when making decisions.
  • Do not ignore or verbally attack those with other opinions.
  • Invite others to join conversations.
  • Confront problems as soon as they occur and address the person directly. Waiting can make problems fester and worsen.

Adds Williams, “Empathic communicators build trust by appropriately disclosing information about themselves, asking how others are doing, and spending more time visiting with others informally.” They speak constructively and don’t let negative feelings build up.

Stay friendly and positive when observing at-risk behaviors—don’t make it personal. Offer feedback individually to avoid embarrassment. Providing corrective feedback can threaten a worker’s self-esteem, so supervisors should also remember to praise safe behaviors and other accomplishments.

A communicator’s tone and style can have an encouraging or chilling effect on employees. Williams recommends the following tips for face-to-face or digital communication:

  • Keep language constructive and focused on problem solving.
  • Try to be as concise and direct as possible.
  • Watch for spelling errors in e-mail or texts that might distract from the message.
  • Avoid bombarding people with excessive messages.
  • Make sure the right people (and only they) are seeing your e-mail.
  • Ensure that sensitive matters are handled in person.
  • Respond to e-mail or texts as quickly as possible.

In many workplaces, executives can command workers’ attention like no one else and Williams encourages organizations to take advantage of that. He recalls one company that offered every employee a chance to meet personally with the CEO for a brief conversation about safety or other issues. “When I asked the employees their views on management support for safety, they all talked about this—they loved it.”

Opening the channels

Williams and his colleagues at Safety Performance Solutions consider behavior-based safety (BBS) to be an ideal tool to enhance safety communications and promote changes in culture and work style.

In BBS, employees learn to observe coworkers and give constructive, one-on-one feedback to reinforce safe behaviors and discourage risky ones. In order to succeed, the communication must be done in an honest and respectful manner, creating an environment in which there is no fear of punishment or reprisal.

The feedback allows the observer and the individual being observed to analyze tasks together in order to identify and remove risks. Peer-to-peer conversation also provides opportunities for employees to compliment one another for completing tasks safely.

BBS is much more than watching someone work and filling out a card that describes unsafe actions. The process helps institutionalize conversations about safety, says Williams. “When done correctly, an increase in the number of observation cards means that there is an increase in the number of safety conversations between employees.” This, he says leads to a more open and healthy safety culture.

Observation data are regularly collected, compiled, and shared with employees. The information is analyzed to identify areas in need of attention, and work teams tackle those areas.

Safety culture surveys provide another path to better safety communications, according to Williams. Surveys ask employees to share their beliefs and attitudes about safety culture at their workplace. Safety Performance Solutions surveys include questions like, “Should employees caution coworkers about unsafe behaviors?” and “Do you caution employees about unsafe behaviors?”

The goal is to increase the number of employees who not only believe it is right to speak to coworkers about unsafe situations, but who actually do it.

Williams also emphasizes the communications value in activities like near-miss reporting. When properly managed, a near-miss investigation is an opportunity for a conversation that can reveal employees’ perceptions about expectations and obstacles to working safely.

Businesses should actually celebrate near misses and use them as an opportunity to acknowledge workers whose actions prevented something worse from happening, he believes. Like BBS observations, near-miss reviews should be conducted in a positive way that avoids finger-pointing and retaliation.

Are you communicating for maximum value?

How well are you communicating safety? Benchmark these recommendations against your performance and share them with frontline supervisors.

Establish a clear-cut, easy, nonthreatening method for employees to make safety suggestions or register safety concerns. This could be a dedicated Web page, a traditional suggestion box, or a mail slot in the safety director’s office.

Act promptly on all safety suggestions and respectfully inform those who submit them of your actions—whether or not you accept them. A lack of a response sets the stage for workers to be disappointed and conclude that management doesn’t care. If you do not implement the idea, thank the individual and offer a detailed explanation of your actions.

Be mindful of how you give employees instructions.

  • Explain clearly what you want someone to do and, if possible, demonstrate the correct, safe way to do it.
  • Ask the worker to repeat the instructions back to you and confirm that they are correct.
  • Ask the worker if he or she sees any way to improve on the instructions or how the task is done.
  • Discuss possible changes and agree on a final procedure.
  • If possible, ask the worker to demonstrate the correct procedure.
  • Write down the agreed-upon steps and make changes to any previous, written procedures.
  • Do not reward unsafe behavior. If rules are broken, consequences should be fairly and consistently administered.

Remember those magical words. A simple “thank-you” is one of the most powerful safety communication tools at your disposal. Depending on your workplace, a written note from the safety director or even from the owner or CEO can go a long way to showing you care and encouraging safe behaviors.

Get help and get creative. Ask your safety committee to consider putting safety communications on the agenda. Consider holding a competition for the best safety poster, slogan, or video. Publicize the winner and use the winning submission in your materials and on your safety site. Solicit blog posts for your company newsletter on “Why I work safely.”

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find out what’s worked for other businesses inside and outside of your industry. Ask safety colleagues for successful communications ideas. Assign an intern the task of collecting good ideas from other companies or sites and assessing which may be a good fit for you.

Consider a kiosk. Some businesses have a safety communication kiosk on the plant floor or in the break room. This can be a simple table and bulletin board or a more sophisticated electronic setup where employees can make safety suggestions, read about new rules and near misses, get training updates, and read the latest safety bulletin or newsletter.

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