Are Your Employees Sick of Hearing About Safety?

A national lab offers three simple tactics to improve safety communications.

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.

PNNL’s Approach
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 to employees.

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.

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