Workplace injuries are most often the result of employee actions, not conditions. At-risk behaviors or those involving unnecessary levels of risks are predominantly the underlying cause and have proven most problematic for those seeking improvements in safety performance. The answer isn’t more rules or procedures or a strategy to improve the effectiveness of management practices already in place. The key to improving workplace safety is reaching employees more effectively. To do so, supervisors must have the communication skills needed to affect the decisions and subsequent actions of their direct reports. Here are five things supervisors can do to improve safety contacts with employees.
When contacting employees in response to observed at-risk behavior, do so from a position of concern. While rules and procedures are important, they exist to help maintain the status quo. Workplace safety is about people; connecting with them is essential to having influence with them. By emphasizing standards and codes in conversation, employees often internalize safety requirements as something punitive and unnecessary. Make the contact and conversation about the employee and your concern for their well-being. By doing so, you make it clear from the onset that you care.
“It’s only unsafe if you don’t know what you’re doing!” Those words in one form or another are often the rebuttal to contacts made with employees in response to observed unsafe actions. To reach employees more effectively, we have to speak the language that’s most affective. Safe and unsafe are internalized and understood as outcomes. When we take chances and get away with it, we interpret the experience as being successful. Put another way, we feel that we accomplished the task safely. For this reason, "safe" and "unsafe" are actually not ideal terms to use when making contacts with employees. Instead, talk about risks. Behaviors that can be improved to lessen the likelihood of injury are better described as at-risk or involving unnecessary levels of risks. Telling someone their actions are unsafe, even though they may have been performed (successfully) hundreds or even thousands of times simply doesn’t work. By helping them understand their actions involve unnecessary levels of risks, you are in a much better position to have an impact on them.
You can communicate without collaboration, but you cannot collaborate without communication. Communication is intended to share information. In safety, it’s important but it doesn’t have the impact or effect that collaboration has. Collaboration is, by design, used to problem solve and create alignment. Working with employees to find ways to more effectively reduce risks requires interaction and dialogue. By involving direct reports in the process, you are far more likely to get their buy-in, support, and commitment for any changes that may be needed.
No one likes criticism, and few respond well to anything that even remotely looks like it. When making a contact with an employee, your conversation should ultimately focus on actions that will be taken moving forward, not on what may have occurred in the past. When you dwell on what has happened, there’s a natural tendency for employees to internalize it as involving blame. If that happens, the likelihood of a successful outcome diminishes rapidly. When you observe an at-risk behavior, make a contact with the employee right away. Express concern for their well-being, seek their input on how the situation can be improved, and get the employees commitment on steps they will take going forward.
Because safety performance is primarily a byproduct of human behavior, mistakes will be made. The best anyone can hope for is a safety culture that embraces continuous improvement and promotes interdependency in looking out for one another. No one gets hurt by choice. Injuries and illnesses are unexpected and unanticipated events. (That’s why the emergency room doesn’t require appointments.) When contacting employees, always assume the best regarding intentions and avoid expressing frustrations for circumstances that may seem to defy all logic and reason. Most importantly, seek to understand and help employees grow from experiences when and where possible.
Companies with a proven track record in safety do things differently. They recognize the value of having effective safety management practices and expect their front-line supervisors to consistently demonstrate leadership in making sure they’re followed. When employees do deviate from standard practices or operating procedures, they equip supervisors with the skills needed to effectively resolve the matter. The skills required to improve workplace safety are beyond those title and authority alone can provide. Supervisors must have influence with employees and need soft skills to succeed. Quite often it’s not what you say, but how you say that matters most.
At AEU LEAD, we specialize in providing for the unique needs of middle managers and frontline supervisors. If a step-change in safety is what you desire, let us show you how. Through a free consultation, we can demonstrate why supervisor development is key and can discuss options for getting started. For additional information or to learn more about AEU LEAD, please contact us.