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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Communications breakdown in safety?

August 1, 2007
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Take a look around and you might wonder what’s happened to the art of communication.

We seldom talk to bank tellers; simply take our business to an ATM. Make AMTRAK reservations, for instance, and you talk slowly to a voice recognition system. How many companies do you call these days and get a live operator — not a directory of names?

My daughter this summer is taking an online world history course. She has a 400+ page book, a worksheet outline with chapter questions, and she’ll take two exams. But unless she schedules an appointment, she’ll never speak with her professor.

Of course kids are incredibly adept at text messaging, running up cell phone bills and showing the world what they’re up to via mini-celebrity Web sites like FaceBook and MySpace. They’re communicating, all right, but in a language — “are u free 2nite?” — and style all their own.

Safety revolves around communication
So much of protecting people at work revolves around communicating. There’s training and instructing, coaching, giving warnings, feedback, rules interpretations. You have “tailgate talks” out in the field. You give updates, interpret rules, propose plans and goals, explain the mission.

Safety folks by and large are comfortable communicators. “We are networkers,” says Mark Hansen, director, environmental health and safety for EXCO Resources, Inc. Which could explain why meetings like the American Society of Safety Engineers annual conference and the American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo continue to draw strong crowds while some predict the demise of national meetings — supposedly to be replaced by things like video conferencing, webinars and distance learning courses.

So far the signs point to safety and health pros using the best communications technology has to offer — distance learning and webinars are increasingly popular, along with customized, individualized self-paced training courses and self-testing delivered via the Internet. But it seems there will always be a need for resources such as Linda Tapp’s book, “SafetyFUNdamentals: 77 Games and Activities to Make Training Great.”

Safety is such a people business, you simply can’t run a program without teams or group activities. Communications technology will be an ever-more sophisticated conduit and delivery mechanism getting messages across and presenting information. But it won’t replace the need to walk around the site or shop floor and listen to ideas and complaints. Or stop to have one-on-one chats with coworkers. Safety is too personal to do without these kinds of up-close conversations.

You can’t automate empathy
And technology cannot replace empathy, another key to good safety leadership. So you’ll also continue to need resources such as the illustrated book — “Amazing Face Reading” — sort of a how-to on face reading with 275 illustrations by an attorney, Mac Fulfer. Safety people always have their sensors out, trying to pick up signals from coworkers as well discovering physical hazards. So they get up close and read for non-verbal cues.

“One of the things that I discovered in 20 years of practicing law is the least reliable information that we ever get from people is what comes out of their mouth,” said Fulfer in an CNN interview. “Eyebrows signal our mental thoughts. Round eyebrows are people whose mental focus is people-oriented. Straight eyebrows are people who need the facts. Angled eyebrows are people who want to stay mentally in control.”

Maybe you believe in the power of eyebrows or maybe you don’t, but as far as I know, there’s no scanner or imaging device on the market that will read faces for safety pros.

It’s doubtful we’re going to see a communications breakdown in safety any time soon. Maybe today neighbors are less chatty, drivers more rude, and business more impersonal. Families might take vacations just to get reacquainted with each other. But safety has actually loosened up and become communicative and interactive in recent years. Think back to the old school “command and control” style of safety leadership popular when many pros were ex-military guys and communication basically came down to “OSHA says.”

Now one-way dialog is much less the norm. I guess you could thank the lack of standards coming out of Washington for forcing safety to become more diversified and resourceful in how to go about protecting the workforce. So we have all sorts of coaching techniques — positive feedback, corrective feedback, active listening, probing, observing, how to converse instead of confront, building belief systems, the importance of being perceptive.

Emphasis on engagement
No, instead of technology making the safety and health business more fragmented, remote and impersonal, when you attend conferences you see that the emphasis, probably more than ever, is on involvement, engagement, building cultures of trust and participation. This is the work of safety and health today, necessary to make safety and health a valued asset in organizations.

At ASSE’s annual conference this past June, corporate executives at one session placed a premium on communication skills:

“We must learn to be more creative when delivering the safety message,” said Senior Vice President of ABB Gerry Schepers.

“You know, we get it, we get safety,” President of Textron’s Industrial Segment Barclay Olson said. “Today, you need to tell us how we can improve.”

“You need to partner, partner with other departments and you need to be selective with your information, be direct,” President of IAP Worldwide Service David Swindle said.

You’re likely not going to tell a corporate president how he or she can improve safety by texting them. Partnering and building relationships — networking as Hansen says — will be tough to execute via video conferencing and emails.

Certainly some aspects of safety — reporting, recordkeeping, some aspects of training and surveillance — have become automated and increasingly reliant on technology. But a communications breakdown in safety? Far from it. People skills are more important than ever.

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