Safety Communications – Not Always Safe
Lean management and technological innovations have changed the way the workforce communicates. Employers that keep their employee safety risks at acceptable levels also need to evaluate communications, training and administrative techniques to ensure they are sending the right safety message.
While there are many new communication vehicles, it’s most important to ensure the message actually reaches the audience and creates or maintains appropriate safe behaviour.
The way that safety was communicated in the past may not be appropriate today. For example:
- Today’s learning styles have changed. Employees today want short, simple, personal messages.
- They seek quick and easy instructions.
- Language skill subsets can vary; employees may have different levels of comprehension for speaking, listening and reading
- Safety programs can be confusing. Often the people teaching safety programs are technical instructors who know their material but may not have a good understanding of operations or organizational culture.
- Safety communications are competing with many other messages from production, quality, environmental and other human resources functions. Most companies are doing more with less, meaning that the more messages sent, the more the messages become diluted in a pool of management communication.
- New tools have emerged that are effective at getting employees’ attention and motivating them to action. Podcasts and instant messaging are two examples, though they are rarely used in safety communications.
- Safety communication objectives have changed. In the past, safety instructors and other communications would present information that were required to share with employees. Today, safety communications strive to motivate employees to prevent dangerous situations before they occur.
Changing the Communication Process
Years of ingrained behaviours aren’t easily changed, but new behaviours won’t last long if they aren’t supported by an audience-centered, interactive, continuous communication/education process (the same principles used with mass media and social marketing). Without understanding how a message reaches employees and what to do with that information, employers can’t be sure employees fully understand what is expected of them. To determine if employees are making sense of safety issues, employers should examine what is and isn’t working in their safety program. The first step is to audit existing communication materials, interview key stakeholders and collect employee input. Next they should decide the best methods to reach, educate and motivate a workforce to follow rules, wear appropriate protection and perform safely. New tools need to be introduced when they add value to the process, such as podcasts, instant messaging, wikis, streaming content and blogs. In addition, employers should take a close look at the vast amount of research available.
Social psychologists and others have studied the efficacy of safety communication strategies in a variety of settings — from hospital environments to nuclear reactors. A common theme in their findings is management’s impact on employee behaviour; if managers model the desired attitude and behaviours, employees follow suit. Furthermore, this behaviour is effective in a variety of work environments, suggesting that modelling is a powerful tool that can be leveraged with little expense or effort. Lack of leadership engagement in safety initiatives can severely mitigate the usefulness of even the most high-tech strategy. Communication innovations may be great for other HR messages, but when addressing safety issues, all techniques need to be evaluated properly and the role of leadership must be factored into the equation.