Next week I will be conducting the activities surrounding “safety day.” As leader and as a safety practitioner I was the logical selection. The notion of me getting up in front of a group of associates and trumpeting on about safety one day a year may seem laughable to some of my more loyal readers and downright hypocritical to my devoted detractors.
Years ago, as a relatively young man, I made myself a promise: I would never teach or promote something that I myself didn’t believe in or support. That has made it tough in some cases, as I have had a lot of bosses and customers—internal and external—who wanted me to present what at first blush seemed to be propaganda. It sucks having principles. I was true to those principles and pushed back and challenged the presentation sponsors until I was convinced of the value of the topic.
But “safety day”?
I mean… come on, right?
Doesn’t taking a day to focus on safety mean by implication that there are 364 days where we can take foolish chances, ignore performance inhibitors (thus making more mistakes) and engage in outright recklessness like some sort of misguided version of The Purge?
I’ve done a lot of soul searching and reflecting on the value of having a “safety day” and it may surprise you to learn that I happen to support safety days, health & safety fairs, and similar efforts provided they are done properly. I happen to think these events serve a number of wonderful purposes and can provide real value by:
Taking stock of safety. Whenever we pursue a goal we need to stop and take a look around every once in a while to ensure that we are making appropriate progress. A safety day isn’t about doing something differently (i.e. working safely for a day) but about gauging the effectiveness of what we are doing better. Think of a well-executed safety day as a way of checking your organization’s pulse in terms of safety.
Clarifying your safety messaging. We often cling to safety messages that are either inane, soft-headed, or out dated. Having a safety day is a good way to review the messages are delivered and received. You can open a frank dialog about what messages the organization is hearing and compare that to what you had hoped to communicate. On safety day, people tend to feel more comfortable being candid about the real message being sent (“You tell us you want us to stop work when it’s not safe but then you gig us for lost production.”) Instead of arguing about the veracity of people’s opinions, you should listen to what they are saying. Don’t dismiss it as so much hogwash or griping or whining and recognize that when it comes to messaging perception IS reality irrespective of your view of the world.
Celebrating your success. Safety is an ugly business with the best news usually being pretty lousy, “Hey everybody, we didn’t kill anyone last year!” Or, “Our injuries are down, huzzah! Huzzah!” Even so, there is usually plenty to celebrate. By focusing not on injury reductions but on positive, proactive behaviors you can generally find something worth celebrating without being trite or contrived. Even if things are looking pretty dismal you can always celebrate your efforts to improve.
Recalibrating your tactics. Everyone plays a role in safety, but unfortunately there is no cast in stone recipe for making the workplace safer. Safety day can be a great time to take a look at your tactics and asking all who participate what is working, what is not working, and why. From there you can recalibrate your safety tactics and, because most of the organization has participated in deciding what should be done, you will have greater buy-in, in contrast to the safety committee making these decisions in a perceived vacuum.
Demonstrating commitment. I am giving up a BIG opportunity to make a series of sales calls so that I can lead safety day at my office. Why? Certainly sales are important, and sales I make have a specific and meaningful impact on my success, but I am choosing (as a partner, no one is forcing me to do this) to lead safety day instead. It’s that important to me. Demonstrating commitment is more than waiving your hands around the room and saying, “See how much we value safety? We brought in lunch! We are paying you to be here.” It’s about making tough choices and putting aside what might be great sales opportunity or an important client meeting to participate in a day focused on the organization’s safety performance and the importance of committing to people and their safety.
Modelling behavior. The world loves a hypocrite, and for whatever reason, people tend to take a hard look at safety practitioners for any sign of hypocrisy. I’ve always thought it was because if you could point out that the safety guy is inconsistent or doesn’t walk the talk, it absolves you from ever listening to him or her. If safety truly is important, then we have to live it, and living it means planning, supporting, and leading safety. Modelling behavior is so important because it tends to be what people end up doing when they are stressed, working unsupervised, or having to make the tough decisions. If people don’t clearly understand and believe that you value safety—above and beyond the other distractions in your life—then they will only value safety when it suits them; when it’s convenient for them.
So while it may surprise, even shock, some of you come safety day, I won’t be working on client accounts, writing proposals, or flying off to exotic locales to pitch my wares. Instead I will be meeting with a group of people who I like and respect and having a frank conversation about leading safety.