To Raise Safety Awareness, Don’t Tell, Ask
By Eduardo Lan
Raising safety awareness is essential to getting frontline workers to work safely and speak up whenever they encounter an unsafe condition. It is also necessary to generate a strong safety culture where workers actively care for each other and warn their peers when they see them taking an unnecessary risk.
However, this level of safety awareness does not usually come naturally to people. As I wrote in my recent blog post “Start With Your Why For Safety”, people aren’t born thinking safety is important. Thus, we need others, typically our leaders, to help us awaken to this importance.
Unfortunately, many leaders—especially frontline ones—lack awareness of the importance of safety and/or are ill-equipped to powerfully influence their crew members´ safety mindset via a coaching relationship.
A coaching relationship is key.
Krauesslara, Averya and Passmore define safety coaching as a “collaborative relationship focused on valued goal attainment aimed at development of skills/performance”1. There are two elements of note in this definition. Firstly, coaching is described as an act of collaboration. Improving safety isn’t about leaders divulging exclusive, enlightened insights. Frontline workers have valuable first-hand experience and can pinpoint safety hazards and possible solutions as well – after all, they are the ones out on the field, doing the job. Secondly, the goal of raising safety awareness is development, not instantaneous perfection. Safety awareness has to be worked on together, over time, not immediately absorbed through one or multiple speeches.
The ability to collaborate, however, is often undervalued by supervisors, who tend to prioritize efficiency over effectiveness. Supervisors are promoted from within the workforce because they are efficient, assertive, and highly productive as individuals, qualities that can be great as a worker, but that are often detrimental to being a safety leader, where success is more about what you can achieve through collaboration with other people.
To make matters worse, little to no leadership training leaves newly promoted supervisors clueless as to how to engage their team to develop safety awareness and ownership. Consequently, supervisors stumble along trying to figure out safety leadership on their own, usually falling into the trap of command and control.
It’s all in the quality of the conversation.
While it’s easier to tell someone what to do than to have a conversation, it’s also much less effective for instilling safety ownership within a team. As a supervisor, it’s important to have rich conversations. We often make the mistake of telling workers what to do and how to do it, then asking if they have any questions. Of course, they say no, out of fear of looking bad! When we create an autocratic learning environment, we are not actually promoting learning at all. Moreover, in the end, we have no idea what was understood and what went over people’s heads.
Ask open-ended questions.
To raise safety awareness, we shouldn’t tell people what to do and how to do it. Instead, we need to ask them how they will do the job safely and then listen. Get people thinking by using open-ended questions, acknowledging them for their good ideas, and offering suggestions.
Open-ended questions start with words like what, where, when, how and why, and get the other person thinking by eliciting information.
In this way, we engage people in a conversation as active participants. Doing so increases thinking, learning, recall and commitment. It also raises safety awareness and ownership, which are our main goals.
Confucius once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”. Safety awareness and ownership are not behaviors we command people into– they are a continuous, collaborative process we engage people in.
1- Victoria Krauesslar, Rachel E. Avery & Jonathan Passmore (2015) Taking ownership of safety. What are the active ingredients of safety coaching and how do they impact safety outcomes in critical offshore working environments?, International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, 21:1, 39-46, DOI: 10.1080/10803548.2015.1017941.