Safety training has been around forever. There are also safety orientations, safety coaching, safety mentoring, safety education, safety feedback. These staples of safety programs have one thing in common: they are all about teaching and often lecturing – informing employees how to recognize risks, know the rules, and avoid injury or illness related to work.

Training is basically a one-way street. The safety instructor directs and demonstrates, and the employee as student passively listens and absorbs. The same model of communication exists for coaching, mentoring, educating, and providing feedback. One person talks and the other, or others, listen.

A new approach

Now something different is going on in workplaces. There’s more of an emphasis on learning, as opposed to training, than ever before. That’s not to throw the baby out with the bath water – training and coaching and mentoring will always be important in safety.

But more companies now are engaged in collaborative learning – part of the drive for greater worker engagement – and also a means to improve safety performance. Collaborative learn is a group or team effort, for one thing. It’s a community of individuals, if you will – managers, supervisors, frontline workers. When they collaborate, they talk to each other, not at each other.

As a group they are interacting and probing, asking questions and listening. This is true frontline engagement. The safety pro, unlike decades in the past, does not command and control the “show” – daily safety activities. He or she now asks questions, critical questions such as, “Where do you think the next accident is going to occur, and why?” Who can answer this better than the people doing the job, out on the floor or the assembly line or at a construction site all the time?

Tools to use

Collaborative learning in safety takes a variety of forms that are not really anything new. You have pre-job briefings and discussions, and post-job huddles. There are walk-arounds where employees are asked about work conditions, pressures, stressors, risks, and whether the company really walks the safety talk. There are interactive focus groups and sensing sessions where participants learn from others and share what they have learned.

Technological advances are enabling more collaborative learning. Workers can snap photos of hazardous conditions and share them with safety managers and co-workers at meetings. Mobile apps allow workers to report incidents, close calls and conduct observations, audits, and investigations. This data is recorded, documented, analyzed, and shared at group meetings

Success stories

And importantly, we’re not talking only about learning from mistakes, from accident investigations, root causes analysis – what went wrong.  Sure, this is important. But you can learn from what’s been done right, done safely.

At the American Society of Safety Professionals’ annual meeting in June in San Antonio, there was an informal session of attendees discussing “Safety Saves” success stories. A quilt hung from a wall and attendees could write short descriptions of their safety successes. Signage said: “Success in safety is often invisible. It’s the incidents that didn’t happen. Let’s unveil our safety success.” And that’s what attendees did. They talked about how they improved safety performance. Engaged employees. Helped supervisors take on safety tasks. Conduced successful behavior-based safety programs.

When safety work goes according to plan, it’s taken for granted. A confined space entry and exit is executed flawlessly. A lockout-tagout maintenance job is done exactly as planned. Dangerous work at height comes off without a hitch – fall protection equipment was used and fall protection systems worked as intended. Don’t take success for granted. Take time out after one of these “safety successes” and have employees talk about what went right. This kind of conversation or de-briefing reinforces the right, correct, safe way to do things. And it focuses on positives, which is a breath of fresh air since so much safety focuses on the negative -- failures, errors, mistakes, mishaps. For too long safety has carried this negative, failure-oriented baggage. It has hurt its “branding” and image in the eyes of both employees and senior leaders forever it seems.

Share small wins

Recognition of safety accomplishments shouldn’t be reserved only for an annual affair where rewards and incentives are handed out. Safety achievements shouldn’t be restricted to “macro” events, such as going a year without an injury. “Micro” events such as a successful confined space entry or an ergonomic solution or excellent housekeeping or wearing personal protective equipment when called for can all be topics for collaborative learning -- not simply taken for granted or ignored.

Last month the American Society of Safety Engineers changed its name to the American Society of Safety Professionals in part to distill a better image. Risk-based thinking and risk assessments are gaining in popularity because they present safety pros in a light that senior leaders can understand and appreciate. Pros are not mere compliance cops but risk analysts and risk mitigators. The image of safety is enhanced by putting more emphasis on: 1) just how collaborative safety can be; and 2) studying, reviewing and discussing what went right with a certain procedure or task – the positive takeaways.

Safety doesn’t need an entire image overhaul. Call it image enhancement, a positive refinement. The future of safety – ensuring safety departments are staffed and resourced and supported adequately – requires more emphasis on collaborative learning, workforce engagement, being more positive, recognizing “small wins” and routine successes. Not only is this an avenue to improve safety performance and improve safety’s image in the C-suite, it’s an answer to the question that haunts the safety profession: who will replace the retiring OSHA generation of pros? Safety jobs that include collaborative learning, use of technology, and bringing positive value to both workers’ well-being and business operations are an attractive career alternative to playing the role of the old safety cop, enforcer, and people fixer.

—  Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,