Effective Safety Communication: How Well Are You Doing?
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Organizational safety communication is a key litmus test for healthy (or unhealthy) safety cultures. The best organizations have ongoing, open feedback throughout the organization. Weaker organizations have one-way traffic with communications (not getting employee input), insufficient psychological safety, and disorganized messaging. It is common for us to meet with EHS leaders who will provide pages of safety improvements over the last few months. However, when we speak with field employees, many are unable to list a single improvement they’ve seen.
The hard work of making changes was made but the (seemingly) easy task of advertising them was not. This is counterproductive. Also, corporate messaging of “safety first” often gets watered down (think the “telephone game”) between levels to the point where communications from front-line leaders to employees (think production pressure over safety) is vastly different than messages from the top.
Safety communication should flow freely and frequently both up and down and across the organization(s). This includes an ongoing feedback loop of getting, addressing, and reporting back improvements from safety suggestions and concerns. Research demonstrates that improving organizational safety communication is significantly related to lower incidents and injuries (Beus et al., 2011) and interventions designed to promote greater organizational feedback reduce hazard frequencies by 60% (Sulzer-Azaroff and de Santamaria, 1980).
So how well is your organization doing with safety communication? Take a few moments and answer the following questions with a simple yes or no.
|Strategic plans are effectively shared with all employees.|
|Leaders solicit employee input when making important safety decisions (e.g., rules, schedules, tools/equipment).|
|Leaders consistently and effectively pass information along to employees.|
|Employees regularly share safety information up the chain of command.|
|Safety information is effectively shared between departments and locations.|
|Important information is shared through many channels|
(e.g., one-on-one, meetings, tailboards, training, billboards).
If you answered “yes” to all (or most all) of these items, you’re doing a commendable job with safety communication. You’re likely successful at getting employee input from safety, responding effectively, and then sharing back results. Employees are normally comfortable bringing up issues and leaders reinforce them for doing so. Also, leaders make smarter decisions because they’re getting field input first. Keep up the good work!
If you answered “no” to all (or most all) of these items, you need to get better. Quickly! Incidents and injuries are more likely when people don’t get key safety information that they need to avoid harm. Work to promote psychological safety and peer-to-peer safety feedback. Encourage leaders to spend more time in the field to get a better understanding of employee safety issues, concerns, and improvement ideas. Take active steps now to improve your safety communication to advance safety culture and prevent serious injuries and fatalities.
Additional online Mini-Assessments are available at https://www.propulo.com/selfassessment/