We had just witnessed a large toolbox talk at a mining construction site in Africa. It wasn’t a bad session; the safety officers were loud and lively in their statements, there was some humor and even the safety manager from the general contractor stepped in to say a couple words.

But I wondered how this morning session would translate in the field. Would the workers be able to discriminate the safe behaviors they need to avoid hazards… during the task… in the moment?

Sam and I walked the site, observing work and talking to workers where risks are taken and where wisdom resides. I was teaching Sam how to be a behavioral coach. What I didn’t anticipate: Sam would be my teacher.

A teaching moment

Eight electrical contractors were struggling to secure cabling at a bend in the conveyer being built. The two-inch cable bundles were cold that morning, making them hard to work with. Sam pointed to three workers up on the conveyer (about four feet off the ground) struggling to bend the bundle. Another had climbed on top of the configuration above the cable to help. Only one worker had fall protection on and it was hanging to the ground. No ladder was to be found. 

Sam had us patiently observe for a couple moments. The workers noticed our presence and the fact we wore the logo of the general contractor on our vest and hard hat. They spoke to each other quietly in their native tongue, then climbed down and put on harnesses.

They had no real experience with fall protection. Sam and I remained quiet as they continued to chat amongst themselves, gesturing at various points of the conveyer assembly and the harness. Eventually they all clipped onto the conveyer assembly at eye height but discovered their straps were in the way of the cable bundles. So they clipped in at the top of the assembly and proceeded to successfully, and safely, wrestle the cables into place and tie them in.

Asking questions creates the learning

Sam knew that he, sporting the logo of the general contractor, could easily elicit anxiety in the work crew, who would rightly be worried about being scolded and written up for their violations. Instead of diving into the problems he saw, Sam did something miraculous… he asked questions.

He translated his questions to their language immediately.

What task they were trying to complete?

Cabling electrical conduit to the conveyer. 

What hazards did they face doing the task?

Working at height, straining with the cable and sharp edges.

What they were doing to stay safe?

They coyly pointed out they were using their fall protection harnesses. 

Sam said, “We saw you figured out how to use the harnesses to protect yourself from falling, good job.” The workers described their struggles finding the appropriate place to clip in. Sam said he noticed this and we all chuckled.

Sam asked if he could tell them what else he noticed. After getting permission, he pointed out they were jumping off the conveyer to get tools. The height of the jump and uneven ground could injure a knee or ankle. 

Some of the crew had climbed on the higher point of the conveyer assembly. What would be a better alternative, Sam asked. They were quick to point out a ladder could be used. Sam thanked them for their solutions; gave them a thumbs up and some fist pumps. A couple went to get ladders and a spirited crew re-engaged their task. 

The way Sam gave behavioral feedback helped them discriminate the safe behaviors needed to avoid hazards… during the task… in the moment. Why? Because we focused on the moment and he asked the right questions, allowing them to make the discrimination. Sam had turned the work setting, the safety tools, and the workers into what us behavior scientists call discriminate stimuli, a very powerful form of antecedent. In the future, as workers begin a similar task, the antecedents of the conveyer height, fellow workers, and task will help them discriminate the behaviors needed to to be safe.

Direction leads to compliance – when you are there

About six months later we cajoled a group of project managers out of their offices, and took them to the workers in several groups. I went out with Juan, one of Sam’s behavioral coaching colleagues. We watched Juan conduct a feedback session much the same as Sam. Then we asked the project managers to engage in their own behavioral feedback with another crew of workers. Here is how it went down:

  1. Watch for five seconds;
  2. Jump in and tell workers what they are doing is wrong;
  3. Tell the workers the right way of doing the task;
  4. Awkward silence.

I asked if the managers thought these workers would be able to discriminate the right behaviors the next time they do the task -- when we are not around to tell them the proper way. They knew the answer was no. 

The T.H.A.N.K.S. conversation

For the next hour or two we had the coaches practice the T.H.A.N.K.S. conversation central to impactful behavioral coaching:

  • T Ask them about the TASK they are doing;
  • H Ask them about the HAZARDS associated with the task;
  • A Ask what ACTIONS they are doing to keep themselves safe;
  • N Tell them you NOTICED their safe actions but also some risk;
  • K Talk about how risks CONCERN you;
  • S SOLVE the problem.

(yeah I know a C is not a K but work with me).