Are Your Employees Sick of Hearing About Safety?
A national lab offers three simple tactics to improve safety communications.
- By Roger Pollari
- Jun 01, 2008
Organizations that care about their employees
care about safety and will go to great
lengths to communicate the importance
of working safely. Regular safety meetings,
creative safety contests, safety Web sites, sharing
lessons learned—safety communicators tend to use
a variety of methods to distribute procedures and
critical safety information to help employees plan
and perform work.
However, the safety message sometimes falls on
deaf ears, especially when employees feel they’re
being overloaded with safety information to the
point where they are sick of hearing about it. This
poses a conundrum for safety communicators:
Should they keep pouring on the safety or should
they lighten up? How much is the right amount?
Organizations that do not stress the importance
of safety to their employees send the message that
low safety performance is acceptable. The attitude
that sales or productivity takes precedence over
working safely translates to an increase in on-site accidents and injuries.
Even worse are outfits that do not want to hear their employees’
opinions about safety. There are plenty of real-life examples
where employees received negative safety enforcement by way
of threats, repercussions, and even termination for refusing to perform
jobs they felt were unsafe.
Ultimately, effective safety communication leads to greater safety
awareness and fewer on-the-job accidents, which leads, in turn,
to lower medical and insurance costs.
A safe workplace certainly should not be taken for granted, but
if you are seeing signs of “safety message overload,” such as decreasing
participation in safety incentive contests or a sluggish
trend in readership of safety Web sites, it may be time to reevaluate
how the message is delivered.
At the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
in Richland, Wash., the safety of employees, the public, and
the environment is a top priority, and safety communications are
essential. PNNL is a DOE Office of Science national laboratory
that solves complex problems in energy, national security, and the
environment and advances scientific frontiers in the chemical, biological,
materials, environmental, and computational sciences.
Safety issues confronting the 4,000 staff range from ergonomics
and icy sidewalks to the operation of sophisticated scientific equipment
and the handling of toxic chemicals and nuclear materials.
Any incident outside normal operations is recorded, corrected,
and examined for cause and lessons learned. As a 32-year veteran
of the laboratory, I coordinate those efforts. PNNL also maintains
an aggressive, proactive safety program that has earned the lab star
status in DOE’s Voluntary Protection Program.
The lab promotes safety through monthly
newsletters; programs including Lessons Learned/
Operating Experience and Voluntary Protection
Program initiatives; an internal, one-stop safety Web
site featuring articles and safety topics; and safety
committees where employees and managers address
safety concerns and possible improvements in an
open, collaborative environment.
Yet I found recently that not everyone is thrilled
with open information sharing. After issuing what
was intended to be a helpful lessons learned e-mail
geared at electrical workers, I and a dozen staff and
managers received a blunt response from a researcher
who called the e-mail “annoying spam.” Instead
of starting a reply-to-all rivalry, I took this as
an opportunity to sit down and have a face-to-face
conversation with the researcher in order to gain his
opinion and evaluate how safety can be more effectively
communicated at the laboratory.
In speaking to the researcher, I found that often
the problem isn’t that employees mind the onslaught of safety
communications; they just want information that pertains to their
jobs. In this case, although the researcher was listed as an electrical
worker, he needed only a one-time briefing on the 8,000-volt
power supply he worked on; he did not need the recurring training
he was receiving through communications related to thermostats,
locks and tags, and other electrical subjects.
As a result of the meeting, I came up
with three simple best practices for improving
the effectiveness of safety communications
Sing the right lyrics to the choir.
Preaching the virtues of personal protective
equipment (PPE) to administrative
staff who spend eight hours a day glued to
their chairs and chained to their monitors?
Teaching about PPE is valuable to some
recipients but not as useful to office workers
as extolling the benefits of proper posture
and ergonomic awareness. Aim your
message at the right audience.
Keep your e-mail clean. The extra steps
you take in making the message physically
easier to digest reaps multiple benefits, not
the least of which is preserving your reader’s
precious time. Forward the essentials,
avoiding long e-mail strings littered with
unwanted trailers that don’t add to the
message. If the copy of the e-mail you are
forwarding is missing a document, be sure
to get and include it with yours. Better yet,
build it into the body of your message.
Look at your message like a maze: The
more straight passages you give readers to
walk through, the quicker they get to the
end (the point) and back to their jobs. Every
layer of forwarded data readers must scroll
through conveys the ultimate message that
the topic is remote from their situation. And
remember, it’s always a good idea to add a
short lead-in that explains why you’re sending
this message in the first place.
Brave face-to-face communication.
While safety meetings, forwarded e-mails,
and links to safety articles have a purpose
in the workplace, don’t shy away from verbal
communication, even if the possibility
of a confrontation exists. If you’re hearing a
low grumble from the back row during
safety presentations or receiving not-so-subtle
hints from employees such as, “Why
do I get these safety e-mails? They don’t
pertain to me,” take a deep breath and then
take the initiative. Often, by using a gentle
yet direct approach, you’ll discover the
cause for the complaining, as well as insights
into how you can make your safety
communications more effective—and
you’ll get it straight from the people you
most want to influence: your employees.
A small investment in analyzing the safety
hazards different groups of your employees
encounter, then tailoring safety messages
for each group, will deliver a great return in
productivity and lower costs.
This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.