Our safety programs, if they exist at all, tend to focus on participation and completion, rather than transformation. To be fair, the chief obstacle stems from a preponderance of wrong assumptions and dangerous misconceptions. Identifying some of these (see below) may help us as safety professionals become more effective in our mission.

Participation is a given.

Like the much-maligned participation trophies of youth sports, participation in safety classes and toolbox talks, without expectation and accountability for growth, constitutes a tragic waste of time at best, an ill-conceived con at worst. If we lead our workers to believe that sitting through an orientation class as they begin work for our company, or that attending a ten-minute morning toolbox talk satisfies all that is required of them regarding safety, we do more harm than good.

Commitment is automatic. 

It should not be disturbing to imagine that a worker can attend our safety orientation and then progress no further in their understanding of safety. What should be all too disturbing is that such a person can remain on the job site! Shallow commitments or nonexistent roots of growth in regard to safety spell danger or worse – disaster!

One-off training is enough.

I remember watching a man’s face light up with amazement at the concept of “See Something, Say Something” one morning after our general contractor’s safety manager spoke about it. I was grateful for his enthusiastic response but wondered, why he did not grasp this idea the previous two times I used it as a topic in our own “toolbox” safety meetings.

There may be a strong case for the importance of repetition in learning, but nothing trumps the personal need for sharping one’s ability to internalize truth when they hear it.

“Oh, they already know this stuff.”

As safety professionals we often start talking to our workers as if they have a working knowledge of our safety culture, or have already earned a safety credential, or have an OSHA 10-Hour Card. In fact this may be their first introduction to the idea of job safety. The danger we encounter is assuming that employees who attend our safety orientation and meetings are now incorporated into the world of safety or that from the beginning of their employment everyone is willing to participate in safe practices on the job site.

Safety development has no deadlines. 

Safety education is a process that will consume the span of one’s employment. But an employee’s lack of personal growth, stalled safety development, poor understanding or perpetually unsafe work behavior should be “red-flags” that defy the limits of a healthy safety program.

Certain issues should be term-limited (e.g., bad habits regarding PPE or the lack of good ones regarding the use of ladders), lest as safety professionals we grow complacent with low –or worse yet, false—standards.

“Try harder” is our safety culture.

We must be careful not to communicate that safety education is a closed curriculum or a set of special classes or a limited set of events (safety orientation, toolbox talks, site safety meetings).  Of course we can’t reduce the safety culture to just flippant responses such as, “Do more,” or “Try harder,” either.  We need to stop, however, setting the bar of safety expectations so low that workers fail to see a need to incorporate safe practices.

Misconception antidotes

So, other than a relentless questioning of everything we have ever done before, how do we escape the tidal pull of dangerous misconceptions? We do so by adding a stronger safety net to filter out the misconceptions, correct the errors, eliminate waste, and introduce better methods.

Our safety programs require continuous evaluation. Evaluation should examine your personal professional safety growth in areas such as character development and willingness to attempt new ways of presenting material, as well as traditional markers like attending safety conferences, regional and local safety meetings, and personal development. Here are some examples:

Mix it up. 

Safety cannot be confined to a particular class, or time, or even means (safety meetings, toolbox talks) only. We have to build intentional encounters with opportunities to teach safe work practices to our workers in our daily job site walks, weekly audits, and common routines, as well as our meetings.

Teach helpful confrontational skills. 

As long as our employees are timid, afraid and ill-equipped to speak up about safety practices, our safety programs will be weak, anemic, and ineffective. We need to introduce motivation that will move them to action. Establish the “See Something, Say Something,” program. Teach our employees that while we are working, we adhere to the saying, “I am my brother’s keeper.” Develop an understanding that part of their hourly earnings include not just being safe, but also helping other to be safe as well.

Empower the mature among us. 

Too many employees occupy “the bench” regarding safety at our work sites. We need to encourage them to actively and intentionally train younger and newer workers. The older teaching the younger is too often an incidental rather than intentional occurrence.

And finally, the most dangerous misconception of all is that great safety programs just automatically happen. They do not! Safety cultures are made. If safety influence wavers, then an attitude of passivity will fill that vacuum. We cannot consider the status quo a possible option for any part of our safety program.

Safety professionals who embrace the entirety of establishing a safety culture will discover greater satisfaction in their work. There will be the one accomplishment that makes our endeavors worthwhile: that our workers get it! That they really understand the importance of safety.