Imagine waking up one morning to find that someone has moved things around in your kitchen. The mugs are in a different cabinet than usual, and it takes you an extra minute to find them and make your morning coffee. The next morning, things are even more different—the bowls are in the back of the fridge, and the box of cereal has been hidden in the closet by the front door.
Getting ready for work has suddenly become a lot harder and more frustrating, even though the basic task—get a bowl and spoon, pour cereal, eat it—stays the same. When you wake up the next morning, everything is where it should be. But you’re still on edge, unsure if you can trust that the things you need will be where you expect them to be.
When people arrive at a familiar location, whether it’s the breakfast table or the workplace, they have certain expectations for where things will be and what’s expected of them. When those expectations are turned on their heads, it can be unsettling. This is true for physical objects—which cupboard will the mugs be in? Which tools will be in my toolbelt when I show up at work? And it’s true for relationships too.
Working for someone who is volatile can be disconcerting. You can never quite be sure what’s expected of you or how you’re going to be treated. It feels like you have to tiptoe around them all the time. And when it comes to safety, paying so much attention to the constantly shifting moods and behaviors of a safety manager can take a lot of focus away from the safety message, or worse, from hazards. Additionally, it can lead to people thinking that the safety message itself is constantly shifting because EHS personnel tend to be the embodiment of safety.
Fortunately, the flip side is also true. A predictable environment leads to predictable actions. Learning to project a certain level of consistency, on both good days and bad days, can do wonders for maintaining a steady attitude toward safety from workers, and encouraging a constant baseline set of safety behaviors. It can also lead to an uptick in participation in safety-related activities, from improving near-miss reporting rates to more attention paid to safety meetings.
As a person, you’re allowed to have bad days. But as a safety professional, you can’t let it affect your interactions with workers. It’s impossible to avoid crummy moods, but you can focus on several actions that project consistency:
Catching people doing things properly. Regularly praise people when you notice them following safety rules.
Intervening in the same way for the same situations. Workers notice when they’re corrected for not following a safety regulation and their co-worker isn’t. Consistency in applying the rules is one of the bedrock principles of trust in safety management.
Enforcing rules and standards evenly. Whether you’re catching workers being safe or correcting unsafe actions, you need to apply these interventions evenly—this means not coming down too hard or soft on specific people, and intervening equitably across the entire workforce.
Fostering a common safety language. Having a universal set of phrases for hazards, human factors, and safety interventions will cut down on ambiguity, improve communication, and make everyone safer as a result.
The need for a common safety language
Ambiguity or confusion over instructions can be a potentially deadly human factor—and one of the antidotes is establishing a common safety language. A shared language or terminology improves communication and can also create a sense of group cohesiveness too.
Establish a clear definition of what something means and what it doesn’t mean. At SafeStart, we talk about rushing, but it doesn’t just mean running around like a chicken with its head cut off. It actually has a very simple, direct definition: going faster than you’re used to or trying to multitask and do more than normal.
So if someone is trained in SafeStart and then their supervisor says “It looked like you were rushing back there, you should slow down” there is no ambiguity, everyone knows exactly what they mean by “rushing,” and there’s no misperception or value judgment that might negatively affect how the message is received.
This excerpt is adapted from 7 Essential Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems, a guide on improving soft skills to increase your effectiveness as a safety professional.