The social networking phenomenon has fostered many, usually misguided and ill-advised, attempts to capitalize on the popularity of the medium to boost sales, and to market to new (and usually younger) markets.

There have been even attempts to use social networking to increase the safety of the workplace. As well-intentioned, and often well-executed as some of the attempts by safety professionals to create a safety social network have been, these attempts all seem to have fallen flat.

Social networking as a safety tool

Social networking would seem to be a great way for communicating safety topics -- everything from safety tweets that directed subscribers to important safety information to tool-box podcasts, and yet somehow the efforts at building these tools always seem to work better in concept.

I know of a handful of companies that effectively use social networking internally but they are few and far between. Let’s face it, companies have a love hate relationship with social media. Ask human resources a question on your benefits and you will likely get a “It’s on ERMA (or whatever nickname your IT have dubbed your website)” which is corporate speak for “I made a website so I wouldn’t HAVE to talk to the likes of you.”

Most organizations I know love the idea of having a highly collaborative team environment that uses a complex construct of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube to achieve communication synergies. Of course doubt starts to gnaw at them like tooth decay as they worry about how you can control the message once the masses have let the genie out of the bottle and pawed at it with greasy fingers.

The solutions are as comical as they are numerous, and mostly come down to rules. Talk about work, but don’t say bad things about work. Don’t disclose anything sensitive or confidential or that might be seen as sensitive or confidential. Don’t post pictures of you at work.

Companies want workers to preach a unified marketing message to the world but they want them to do it in a way that feels fun, extemporaneous, and spontaneous. They want that guerilla marketing viral clip of a commercial that doesn’t feellike a commercial; they want something that doesn’t exist.

People on the other hand want to feel like self-absorbed celebrities. They want to believe that their “friends” and “followers” give a rip that they had a spinach and goat cheese omelet for breakfast or that they checked in at Applebee’s.

Some of you, heck many of you, are shaking your heads in pity for me. You believe that social media is too big, to ubiquitous to ever die. Maybe you’re right, but if it isn’t dead it’s coughing up blood. And maybe Facebook and LinkedIn and YouTube are so deeply ingrained into our society that they can’t die, but any opportunity we had to make them a useful and cohesive tool for safety has long since gone down for the dirt nap.

Useful piecemeal

All this is not to say that there aren’t still good, albeit isolated uses for some of the social media sites, consider for example the following.

Facebook: So what good is Facebook to the safety professional? Well let’s suppose you have someone who claims to be permanently disabled but you suspect fraud. Many people don’t realize that you can follow someone on Facebook even though they aren’t “friends” with them. Simply checking the allegedly injured worker’s Facebook page will allow you a better glimpse into whether or not the injury is legitimate. If the person supposedly has a bad back and yet has posted pictures of him/herself waterskiing you now have evidence that the injury might be fraudulent. By the same token, if the person keeps posting about doctor’s visits and missing out on fun activity because of his or her injury, it might lend credence to his or her claim. Of course neither of these examples is fool-proof, but you will be surprised and what people will admit to once they are confronted with knowledge you aren’t supposed to have. One tip though: play your cards close to your chest; someone committing fraud will quickly scuttle his or her Facebook account if they think they are caught.

LinkedIn: LinkedIn discussion groups are the single best first stop for many questions you may have about worker safety. You can start a discussion topic that asks a question or for advice on an issue with which you have been struggling. From there dozens of experts (and unfortunately hundreds of loud-mouths) will weigh-in. I don’t think I have ever been disappointed with the discussion thread, although I have had my fair share of frustration with individuals in the groups.

YouTube: You can often find highly entertaining videos that are perfect for use in your safety messaging. The videos that can be used in safety meetings, as icebreakers in safety training, or even as safety moments.

Wikis: Wikis are shared sites that allow people to collaborate on documents. People can add information to a topic, change what’s written there, and generally create a community of documents. A wiki is a great way for people to share lessons learned about safety, post read-across or suggestions, or just better manage a lot of ideas.

Twitter: Twitter isn’t meant to convey a lot of information; instead it is typically used to direct people to a different website and to provide links to important information. Twitter can be useful to alert workers of a safety concern, a change to a procedure, or to provide them with a link to important safety information for your industry.

Blogs: Blogs can be effectively used to share important safety topics, provide links to news stories, and even be an important component of a safety communication campaign. Of course the best blog is but there are some other fantastic sites that are well worth the time and trouble to seek them out.

Creating synergy

Individually each social networking platform has significant limitations, but together you can create a synergistic system where one platform drives traffic to another and facilitates the communication of your message to the right audience at the right time.

Start by determining what you want to accomplish. For example, you might want to alert workers of a serious threat to safety. You can either make simple video and post it to YouTube or post it on a company Wiki (or both). Once you’ve decided where you want the information to reside you will want to drive traffic to that site. Tweeting (sending out a Twitter message) a link to a YouTube video is an excellent way to communicate this information quickly to your followers.

You might also want to direct traffic to an interesting article in a LinkedIn discussion group using Twitter; really doesn’t matter how you direct the flow of information the key is that you direct safety information so that people can get it when they need to.

Social networking if used properly can be a very effective and useful tool not only for making safety more efficient, but for making your business overall more efficient. But be forewarned: if done poorly your attempts to use social networking as a business tool not only will fail, it will also impede any further attempts to create a viable communication network.

I started this article asking the question, ”Is social media dead?” and I would end it with this statement, social media isn’t dead, but it has morphed into something else, something more powerful and if you aren’t afraid to loosen the control of the message you may just achieve great things. Then again you might just use it to share pictures of kittens.