POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Nonverbal "markers" of safety

April 25, 2007

My previous column dealt with nonverbal aspects of one-to-one, personal communication. But there is still much more to nonverbal communication.

At a broader level, symbolic nonverbal messages are sent out by teams, departments, offices, plants, divisions, and organizations. There is a growing field of architectural (or environmental) psychology that deals with the design of workspaces to facilitate their intended function. This field draws heavily from the parts of classical ergonomics that deal with “man-machine” relationships and the engineering of tools, equipment, and the workspace envelope to be compatible with the abilities of the human operator. It looks at overall systemic issues of color, light, and the design and use of space — not so much the narrower (but important) issues of “how should this machine control relate to its associated display?”

As an example of architectural psychology in action, hotel lobbies are ideally designed and arranged to promote relaxed informal conversation in small clusters, as people wait for the airport shuttle, or assemble and wait for the rest of their dinner party, etc. Think also of how some offices are open, “light and airy,” while others look and feel like a dungeon, or the proverbial “cube farm.” These macro design issues affect how spaces are used, and what it feels like to be in them.

More obvious for safety professionals, think of the immediate impression you have when you see a clean, well-organized maintenance shop as opposed to a cramped, dirty, messy, unorganized one.

The psychology of architecture

Much of the unconscious and automatic perception of a given organization — how safe it seems to be — depends on the architectural psychology of that organization. That includes what folks see and hear between the lines, in and around the explicit images and artifacts of the organization, the visible signs of how the organization “wants to be seen.”

Successful sales reps know how to “read” an individual and gain a strong first impression by looking at his/her office. How is it appointed? What is on the desk and on the wall? Where is the office? How is the space arranged?

In the same way, consultants learn how to read individuals, teams, departments, etc., not just by listening to what they say about themselves, but by observing what is between the lines — how the symbols and artifacts are arranged and presented. Just like individuals, organizations send messages about themselves, about what is important to them and what they value, through their nonverbal channels.

What’s the message about safety here?

Marker #1 — housekeeping

After years of experience, I find myself automatically forming a clear first impression of an organization’s focus on safety by several specific nonverbal “markers,” independent of what gets said about safety. What impression would I have if I had the opportunity to spend a day at your operation?

Housekeeping is the most overwhelmingly powerful safety marker in my judgment. Whatever the reasons, a messy shop with rags strewn about, tools here and there, oil on the floor, and dust everywhere sends a powerful negative message about the company’s commitment to safe work.

There are clear and obvious ties between housekeeping and safety, well known to readers of ISHN. First, the clutter and mess of an unkempt workplace is in and of itself hazardous. Second, if people don’t care about the cleanliness and neatness of their work area, why should we assume that they intend to do other things properly and well?

Marker #2 — safety activators

Second, I notice the “activators” for safe behavior. Are there meaningful signs, reminders, and prompts for safe behavior visible in the workplace? I don’t mean the faded, tattered banners about some safety “program” from years gone by. I mean signs and notices that indicate high-hazard work areas, “quick-start” signs that review the basics of required lockout/tagout procedures, posted at appropriate lockout spots.

Are safety meetings, tailgate/toolbox safety talks, pre-shift huddles, and the like well led by an expressive, enthusiastic stakeholder? Are these safety-communication opportunities focused, engaging, interactive, up-to-date, and action-oriented? Is there evidence of truly effective safety training, and ideally peer-to-peer safety coaching and feedback (which is, I think, one of the strongest indicators of the Positive Safety Culture)?

Marker #3 — role modeling

Third, I pay attention to the behavior of my host as we tour the facility. While giving the “standard tour,” does he/she use proper PPE and follow safety procedure — and require that I do the same? Leaders in the organization are role models, of course. I had a supervisor take pains once to explain on a plant tour about their rules for hardhats, ear protection, eye protection, etc. He proudly showed me marked mandatory hardhat, earplug, etc., areas — while we were physically standing in one of those hardhat areas, without hardhats!

Marker #4 — employee behaviors

Fourth, I pay close attention to the behavior of other workers I am able to observe. Are they working safely? If I am not sure, I asked good-natured non-threatening questions ( “I don’t know much about welding. I notice that one of those guys is on a ladder welding directly over his buddy who is welding below. Is that OK?”).

And where there are clearly visible violations, what’s the response? Standing in the mandatory hardhat area, the supervisor and I were not hidden. I would estimate as many as five hourly employees and at least one other supervisor saw us in the mandatory hardhat area without proper equipment. Out of that group of at least six, on that particular occasion, no one spoke to us.

I good-naturedly pointed out to the supervisor that none of the others who saw us had intervened. We talked about the best, most constructive ways to get the message across to the plant that all employees could and should step in and get involved, positively, in such circumstances. I would not have set up the supervisor’s error as a learning experience, but it was one that we were able to capitalize upon, and one that he and his folks will no doubt remember.

Thinking about the four markers listed above, how does your organization present itself to a visitor (and to employees who work there every day)? Would a visitor come away with a strong impression that safety really is a core value and a shared commitment for you? Would he or she see and feel a strong Positive Safety Culture in your workplace?