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Making safety stick

As an employer you’ve just sent several employees through a day and a half of safety training.  Upon their return you place a copy of their training certificate in their training file.  No more worries about these employees.  You can expect them to use their new knowledge to remain injury-free indefinitely, right?

Even though the employees are now armed with new safety information, they must still make correct decisions to keep themselves and their coworkers safe.  Employers strive to reduce risk by continuously keeping behavior-changing information in front of the worker.  So how do you make the information stick?

The following tried-and-true practices will help deliver training and safety messages with staying power.safety stick pic

  1. Make information relevant and meaningful with a direct application. It is believed that nearly 90 percent of all information we take-in is lost in 72 hours if we don’t have a direct use for it and apply it.  Extraneous facts or marginally useful information is not valued and jettisoned by the brain.
  2. Repeat the message. In his book “Safety by Objectives,” Dan Peterson recognizes the importance of talking about safety every day. The idea is that a reoccurring event develops a pattern which conditions the brain.  This activity drives desired behavior and also communicates to the worker the importance that the company places on safety.  In the construction industry this task is completed daily through “tailgate” meetings or pre-task planning activities such as “take-five” huddles where the crew discusses the day’s scope of work and safety requirements.
  3. A worker needs to hear a consistent safety message from all levels within the company. This includes front-line supervisors, as well as middle and upper management.  The message needs to be meaningful, heartfelt, and frequent to be relevant.
  4. Justify the need for telling them to be safe. Workers value a message when they understand the basis of “why?” Internally, the message is better accepted if someone just clearly explains the reason “why” you are asking the employee to do it.  This basis should be identified by everyone by completing the sentence: “I need you to follow this safety practice because…” Here is where you describe both the human costs (injury) and the business costs (lost productivity, insurance premium increases, etc.) associated with unsafe behaviors.
  5. A message is more meaningful when it is personal. A shared story of a workplace or off-the-job injury brings the cause and effect home — to the individual.  Worker-to-worker sharing is very powerful, so challenge the workforce to share lessons learned with their team.
  6. We remember when we are engaged in the learning process. This can be accomplished in the following ways:
    • Get the employee involved in the safety activity. This could be leading a tailgate meeting, tool-box talk, pre-task or shift plan, safety inspection or even safety committee participation.
    • Make training memorable by making it fun. Use games to challenge and develop team-building experiences.  The more senses that are used the greater the retention of information.
    • Use hands-on activities or demonstrations to improve recall.
  7. Provide positive feedback when the desired behavior is achieved. Research shows that positive, rather than negative, feedback has a greater effect on changing behavior.  A simple recognition, such as, “thanks for wearing your safety glasses,” goes a long way.

The degree to which information “sticks” is ultimately a reflection of the organization’s culture.  Requests are internalized and practiced to a greater degree when the employee feels valued and when trust has been established between employer and employee.  In time, employees will develop a sense of interdependence … responsible for each other’s safety.  Who wouldn’t want to work at a place where the adage, “I’ve got your back and I know you have mine,” is truly carried out when it comes to staying safe?

Related: A serious look at serious injuries and fatalities.

About the author:

Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.


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