How people communicate about safety is a major contributor to the success or failure of any safety program. Strong interpersonal communication makes it easy for employees to know what types of safety behavior are expected from them, what management will do to support workplace safety, and what their peers are observing around them.
Conversely, when a safety program is performing poorly there’s a good chance there are also problems with safety communication. Here are three common causes of poor safety communication:
1. Employees don’t have the proper vocabulary. It’s important for everyone to be able to communicate effectively at work, especially when it comes to discussing safety requirements or pointing out fluctuating levels of risk. But if employees have not received adequate safety training, the safety terms used at work might as well be in a different language.
This language barrier can be eliminated by providing a clear, common safety language. That way, everyone will know what the safety supervisor means when he says: “Be sure to keep my eyes and mind on task,” or what a coworker is trying to communicate when she says: “Watch yourself, you almost moved into the line-of-fire.”
2. Employees are afraid of how feedback will be received. In an ideal world, employees keep an eye out for one another and speak up when they notice a co-worker doing something that could lead to an incident. Unfortunately, few people have the skills and confidence to provide constructive criticism. Many workers also take it as a personal failing whenever they receive safety feedback and can get defensive when their peers speak up. As a result, most employees choose to play it safe and remain quiet which is ironically not playing it safe in terms of preventing injuries.
Giving employees the tools they need to speak up (or to accept feedback) requires practice and a dedicated approach. It’s not something that happens overnight. But some safety training programs have shown the ability to improve peer-to-peer interaction skills, increasing the likelihood that an employee will says something the next time they observe a potentially dangerous situation.
3. Communication is viewed negatively because it only (or usually) happens in bad situations. A good safety manager knows that providing positive safety feedback can be as valuable as correcting unsafe behavior. Calling out someone for doing something correctly—like taking the time to clean a work area to avoid trips and falls—can have a huge effect on a safety culture.
First, it will make employees less likely to bristle at corrective safety communications because they will no longer view safety feedback as exclusively negative. It will also increase the frequency of communications, because there will be twice as much behavior to comment on, and more conversations will lead to more awareness.
Finally, it will reinforce good habits and make employees feel valued. As Plymouth Tube can testify, when employees feel valued and engaged there are strong improvements in performance, attitude and productivity.
Communication experts at Digicast say “communication that gets everyone on the same page is integral for companies to improve their safety record, staff engagement, productivity levels, as well as improving staff and customer retention.” They also note that employees who are effectively engaged in safety are five times less likely to have a safety incident and seven times less likely to have a lost-time incident.
There is no downside to strengthening safety communications—and there’s plenty to be gained by giving employees the skills, practice and support to improve their safety communication skills. Train workers to speak the same safety language and mix in positive feedback, and watch as these communication tips turn into more dialogue and fewer injuries.
One of SafeStart’s strengths is providing a common language and framework everyone can use for positive safety communications and attitudes.