Six Tips to Improve Your Safety Conversations
Whilst discussion and conversation is well intentioned it is also important to ensure that our discourse promotes effective safety culture.
I was in a mine recently when I saw a document posted on the walls entitled ‘Six Tips to Improve Your Safety Conversations’. Now whilst I think it’s wonderful to promote safety conversations, I also think it’s helpful to give sound advice based upon evidence and research. So for fear of being criticized as ‘picky’, I just want to offer some qualifying comments on this highly circulating document from the perspective of the psychology of risk, culture and learning. This is not intended as personal criticism of the ‘the mining man’ but rather a qualification of a well intentioned document.
1. It’s the observation and listening that counts.
Often people don’t know what to observe and how to listen. In technical environments like mining and construction, I find there is little expertise in the fundamentals of people skills. A four day course in communications skills is a good start but hardly much in the way of developing people skills. Now I don’t expect miners and engineers to all of a sudden to become ‘feely and touchy’, that’s not their core business but the beginning of people skills is not talking but listening.
What should be observed? The ability to observe primary, secondary and tertiary risk is also critical to any safety observation. Unless we know how to observe workspace, headspace and groupspace our dialogue is most likely to be typical, and just focus on physical hazards and risks. Physical hazards and risk comprise about 15% of incident causality.
2. It’s the dialogue that counts.
The idea of ‘discussion’ may not promote a two-way exchange, I can ‘discuss’ something with someone and not seek a response. So, the idea of discussion is not the essence of a safety conversation but the idea of dialogue. If the conversation is one-way, then it’s not really that valuable. One of the key determinants of culture is language, and an awareness of the way language promotes cultural expectations. So, it’s better to encourage dialogue than discussion.
3. Ask open questions and strategic questions.
The quality of questioning is more important than the volume of questions. Lots of poor questions simply encourage a lack of dialogue. So the tip is not to ask lots of questions (especially about physical hazards) but to ask open questions and listen to the response (about how they make sense of their work). Too often people ask loaded questions and try to anticipate the response. In environments like mining and construction, there is a lot of ‘telling’ and a real lack of conversation fundamentals. Open questions assist listening and are far more effective that lots of questions.
4. Focus on attitudes and values.
Behaviours alone are not a reliable assessment tool for determining safety culture (LTIs are similarly an ineffective measure of safety culture). Often what we observe is an aberration of attitude and values influenced by stress, fatigue, complacency and the presence of the observer. So, the focus of a conversation should be on listening to the response to open questions rather than just observing behaviours. Again, the focus on the physical is a major problem in behavioural focused safety. A much greater emphasis should be placed on psychological and cultural indicators. The skill in safety conversations is not so much in asking what you can see but asking what you can’t see. The skill in safety conversations is not in observing the obvious but in listening for what is not said.
5. Mentor the right thing.
Whilst it’s good to have mentoring in the workplace and to do observations in pairs, it’s important that safety conversation be skilled and effective. Too often ineffective safety conversations do more harm that good. It is important that people are mentored but also important that we don’t just grab anyone. The key to mentoring is expertise in mentoring, building relationships and understanding the basics of people skills. Mentors need to ensure they have the skills to mentor others and the skills to mentor the right approach to safety conversations. Demonstrating poor technique is counter productive to safety.
6. Encouragement and recognition.
Positive feedback and praise are good but need to be meaningful and specific. Praise for the sake of praise is not helpful rather, recognize good language, good attitude and values in what you observe and hear. A safety conversation is not about telling but extracting. Again, safety leadership skills in observing the ‘silences’ are most important.
So whilst it’s wonderful to be well intentioned it is also important to ensure that our discourse promotes effective safety culture.