Flip through any recent issue of a safety magazine and you’re likely to come across an article or two that talks about safety culture. It’s a constant concern for anyone in safety management.
As Gary Higbee, winner of the Distinguished Service to Safety Award used to say, the entire concept of safety culture boils down to “the way we do things around here.” Social norms and workplace cultures tend to have very deep roots, and the way things are done around your organization can be really, really hard to change.
Here’s the trick to changing safety culture: don’t try to change it. It’s like trying to build Rome in a literal day—it’s impossible. Instead, focus on building one building at a time, one block at a time. It will take longer, but you’re more likely to achieve it.
Rather than try to uproot how things are done around here, learn to read the room to tell how things are being done today, and start taking the temperature of individual employees to know how they’re likely to behave in the next couple of hours.
That will give you information that you can actually use. Knowing what the current safety climate is, and which way the social winds are blowing, will let you adjust toolbox talks, training plans, and other activities for maximum impact. And gauging each person’s wherewithal will tell you where you need to focus your attention and/or intervene.
The Importance of Taking the Temperature in Safety
When someone dear to you, like a spouse or a child, seems a little off, you take their temperature to find out if they’re sick. Because if they have a fever, that gives you useful information—do they need medication? Need to go to the hospital? Or maybe it turns out they aren’t under the weather, and that is valuable to know too because it means that something else is giving them trouble that you might need to deal with. Either way, you can act with clarity and can help them more effectively and quickly.
Note that the piece of info you care about is what their temperature is right now. Not what it was yesterday, or what their temperature usually is. But what it is in the moment, so that you can deal with it in the moment. Discussions of safety culture are usually about norms and averages—what workers’ temperatures usually are. But if you want to reduce the risk of someone getting hurt today, you need to know what their individual temperature is today.
Think of taking the temperature as an informal evaluation of individual workers’ state of mind. Do they seem distracted from paying attention to safety risks? Tired? Unclear on the specific task they should be doing? These are all signs that someone’s temperature may be off, and they may need their supervisor to monitor them a little closer. Or a direct intervention may be required.
A temperature check is an act of observation, one that develops through practice. Here are a few things you can keep an eye out for:
- Noticeable signs of human factors like yawning or rubbernecking
- Deviations from their usual behavior
- Changes in mood
- Differences in the way others interact with them
Most of these are signs that you can spot over the course of the day—no special actions are required. Instead, you’re paying closer attention to the things you’re already seeing, keeping an eye out for signals that human factors might be present in an individual worker and then responding as necessary based on EHS best practices.
Why Safety Managers Need to Read the Room
If a temperature check is an assessment of individual workers then reading the room is a measure of how employees are doing as a group. Individual factors like fatigue can elevate the risk of an incident. So can group influences, which can lead to overconfidence, taking shortcuts, and other issues. Knowing what’s affecting a group of workers, and how their behaviors might deviate from the norm, can be an incredibly valuable piece of information.
The practice of reading the room looks a lot like taking the temperature of a person, with a few key differences. It can be a lot harder to read a small group of people all at once, and it’s okay to focus on the basics: what is the collective attitude like? Are there any deviations from typical social interactions? Are there any signs of human factors or other issues being exhibited by multiple people?
That last point can be particularly useful. If you get the general sense that a portion of the group is distracted, for example, you can run a group intervention like a toolbox talk to bring everyone’s mind back to task.
People’s attitudes and actions can vary drastically from day to day due to human factors, contextual influences and the spillover-crossover effect, and reading the room should be a daily practice. It’s too much to expect safety professionals to closely monitor each small group or team of workers, especially at large facilities. So it’s important to train frontline supervisors to recognize and manage these issues.
Not convinced of how much you can learn about the current safety climate just from reading the room and taking the temperature? Consider that research has shown that “nearly 40% of a person’s attitude is conveyed vocally through tone and inflection” and another 55% is conveyed through body language. You can tell a tremendous amount from visual cues. And it’s worth noting that many safety soft skills, from empathy to reading the room, depend on your ability to read tone of voice, body language and other nonverbal cues.
All of which is to say that learning to pick up on non-verbal cues is one of the quickest shortcuts to improving multiple soft skills at the same time. The same can be said for recognizing the importance of safety climate—or what the prevailing attitude is today.
This post has been developed based on the guide 7 Essential Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems, which reviews the importance of reading the room, taking the temperature, and other soft skills that are vital for success in safety.