Be careful, pay attention, watch what you’re doing, follow the rules... and you won’t get hurt!”

Not exactly the most positive form of communication, is it?

Most people are not overwhelmed with positive reinforcement at the workplace. But the real problem with negative communication for safety is how it inhibits peer to peer intervention in “real time” out on the shop floor, in the field or at the “sharp end of the stick” as Sidney Dekker would say.

As a result, almost all companies struggle to get their employees to speak up and say something when they see someone at-risk.

Motivating interventions

How can a workforce develop a common language for safety that isn’t so negative? That will make it easier for people to intervene?

Well, for one thing, the common advice -- pay attention, watch what you’re doing, etc. -- has to go.

Even though it’s good advice, over time it becomes negative or is received negatively. So, we will have to change the way people talk about inattention if we want them to intervene in real time. Just changing the vernacular alone isn’t enough. Employees and supervisors have to know what causes inattention or what causes someone not to have their eyes on task and their mind on task.

For instance, we can say, “Hey, you look pretty tired. Make sure to keep your mind on task.” Or if you see someone going too fast you can say, “On a scale of 1-10 how rushed are you right now?”

Friendly persuasion

Ask them to “rate their state.” This is more friendly persuasion than saying “don’t rush,” which probably just increases their level of frustration if they are already behind on a job or running late. It also forces their mind to use their pre-frontal cortex instead of their lizard brain - which is usually all we’ve got working for us when we are in a rush. Similarly, telling someone to “calm down” when they’re angry will likely just make them angrier. Whereas asking them to rate their state lets them see (for themselves) that their level of frustration is at a dangerous level.

Some workplaces and companies we’ve worked with over the years initially had very negative safety cultures. But with training it didn’t take very long before the workers were saying, “Hey, eyes on task” and they’d point to a car rolling towards them. Or, “Hey, line of fire,” and get them to look at the fork truck that was loading the box car.

Benefits of a new vocabulary

This allows for communication that is effective and is not perceived as negative. Plus, employees start freely volunteering states and mistakes when an incident happens or they experience a preventable injury. Instead of trying to diminish or deflect the notion of “blame,” employees analyze what really has happened and learn how to improve or prevent the next incident. In one railroad company, 1,200 employees went nine months without so much as a first aid injury and a lot of credit, according to their union representative, was due to having a new vocabulary that people incorporated into their lexicon.

Over the years thousands of workplaces have benefited from having a new way to communicate the risk of inattention, rushing, fatigue or complacency without causing frustration, blaming the victim, or damaging relationships. Intervening becomes close to risk free because it is friendly and almost always well received. Most people will say thanks when someone points out a line of fire hazard or something that can cause a loss of balance, traction or grip.

Actually looking out for others

Yes, there is training involved. Creating a positive safety culture isn’t effortless. But it’s a lot quicker and a lot more reliable than hoping that the “messaging” from senior management actually reaches the shop floor. Many senior leaders will tell everyone not to walk by an unsafe act without saying anything. But at most workplaces this message is largely ignored. Another remote lecture from above. If you give people the right perspective to work from, and a new vocabulary to work with that makes sense to them, they will intervene and do it in real time or as soon as they see someone at-risk. Isn’t this really the culture we all want, where everybody in the workplace actually does look out for each other?