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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Wake me when it's over...

December 3, 2008
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We’ve all had plenty of experience with safety meetings. We’ve attended many, and some of us have led many. While some of these meetings have been highly effective, many — maybe most — have not been effective at all.

I recently completed a round of safety training sessions for a large industrial company. I asked the supervisors, lead men, and safety coordinators in each session to give me their best estimate of the percentage of safety meetings they’ve experienced over the years that were, in their judgment, really effective. Estimates ranged from a high of 75 percent down to five percent, with the average response being well less than 50 percent.

This is troubling news. This company in question is a benchmark organization with a good safety record and a commitment to protecting its employees and anyone else on site. Still, the overall perception was that the safety-dedicated, safety-focused, “half-hour a week” training event did not even begin to accomplish its objectives.

I would wager employees in most other companies would respond similarly.

What’s the goal?

Whether meeting goals are identified consciously or not, a safety meeting should activate safety awareness and safe behavior on the part of every crew member. Meetings should encourage everyone involved to watch out for and coach each other. For me, this is the core purpose of a safety meeting.

But in a familiar worst-case scenario, a supervisor simply reads a safety bulletin or an accident report from a regulatory body database. Participants then sign a roster indicating they attended the meeting. Then everyone gets back to work.

How can meetings be more effective?

The following seven steps will enable leaders of safety meetings to get the most out of their efforts:

1 — Plan the meeting around your critical objective. A safety meeting is not an informal monologue about safety. It is a planned communication event aimed at achieving a specific objective. And the planning involves both the content – the “what” of the meeting – and the process – the “how”.

2 — Determine what content is of interest and value. Folks are likely to get more out of topics directly relevant to the work they do, the conditions they work in, best-practice behaviors they need to engage in, and the risks and hazards they may be exposed to. When in doubt, one way of determining what would be of most interest and value to the group is... ask them.

3 — Limit your points. No more than three to five main points is my rule of thumb. One is not enough, and 25 is ridiculous. The point is not to cover as much as you possibly can; the point is for folks to learn and focus on a few critical elements of safe work.

4 — Make the meeting interactive. If people are talking, they are active and engaged. One-way communication, the most common format by far, is of limited value. What will get your people talking? If you pose questions, will they answer? Can you pre-assign meeting participants to lead part of the meeting or perhaps talk about a safety issue of particular importance to them?

5 — Vary the format. Have outside experts in when possible. Vendors are often happy to come in and talk about safe use of their equipment. Some safety cultures rotate leadership responsibility for the meeting. A roundtable discussion of safety case studies (again relevant to the kind of work they do) can be energizing. Breaking a large class down into sub-groups of three or four to work on case studies or to brainstorm safety recommendations can generate a higher level of energy and involvement. In a group of 20, usually only a few actively participate; in a group of four, all usually participate.

6 — Discuss “near miss” situations. It may be difficult to get people to talk openly about incidents they have seen or been part of. But if approached gradually, with no one singled out for embarrassment or punishment, many teams get to the point where they will share and learn from such events. When a safety culture is at the point where near misses can be discussed openly and constructively, the meetings are automatically more useful to the team.

7 — Follow up issues identified in the meeting. A common complaint of ineffective safety meetings is “we bring stuff up but nothing gets done about it.” Don’t spend every safety meeting rehashing the same hazards and poor practices.

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