You’re on the right wrong track

One of the biggest barriers to getting health and safety right is poor communication.

I remember one of my first jobs in a health and safety role. It was with a large blue-collar company.  Thrown in the deep end, I was immersed in the organisations politics, heavy union activity, a strong them v us mentality.

At the entrance of the worksite was a billboard that proudly displayed all sorts of lag indicators (relating to incidents), such as lost time injury (LTI) rates, number of days since last incident, number of days since this, number of days since that, and all that jazz.


There was a disconnect. What was displayed on that board and what was happening inside those factories were worlds apart.

Upon reflection, I can clearly see where the fault lines were.

Health and safety performance targets were set at a corporate level with little to no involvement from the factory people. These were heavily weighted on lag indicators. Each time there was an incident, management were consumed with trying to avoid the incident becoming a lost time injury (LTI).

We had some really passionate worker representatives.  Many times, they would throw their hands up in the air, to express how they felt – that was: what is the point. They were giving up on being the health and safety champions of the workforce.  They felt as though each time they raised a health and safety issue it would fall on deaf ears.

There was a communication breakdown. Managers didn’t directly engage with their workers on health and safety matters. Workers were frustrated.

The problem was, we were all speaking a different language when it came to health and safety. We weren’t having strategic conversations needed to get safety on track.

Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon, leading experts on designing strategic conversations and authors of Moments of Impact, suggest that a good leader is defined by their ability to design strategic conversations; that is, helping others channel their creativity and finding great solutions to their company’s obstacles.

Strategic conversations are all about creating a shared experience for every participant, in which the most pressing issues [health and safety] are explored openly to come to the smartest ways to proceed.

Your people don’t want to talk about safety performance indicators. They want to be consulted on health and safety matters, on ways that they and their colleagues can be protected from operational risks.

In a recent article Dying for a Chat, I referred to Dr Ranjana Srivastava, author of Dying for a Chat, the communication breakdown between doctors and patients.  Dr Srivastava suggests that in the medical field good communication skills should be considered as important to healthcare as medical breakthroughs. When doctors communicate well, the consultation becomes more patient-centred, taking in a broader view of the patient’s needs.

This can be compared to health and safety in the workplace.  Consulting with your people can assist in diagnosing the operational risks that they and others may be exposed to.

We can change the tune of our leader-worker health and safety conversations.  For example, rather than a formal meeting or audit style approach, we can have an informal chat with our people.

Consider a personal strategic conversation, one that you can connect with your workforce and gain some valuable insight.

Asking questions in a way that makes sense to everyone can be a health and safety game changer.  Questions such as:

  • If anything were to go wrong with the task, what would it be?

  • In what circumstance, could something go wrong when doing this task?

  • Do you have any concerns with this task?

  • Has that happened before or has there been a narrow escape?

  • How could we stop that from happening?

  • If you could design the task, what would it look like?

Our aim is keep our people healthy and safe.  For this to happen we need to take them from a state of withdrawal where they are uninspired and disengaged to a point where they are on board and inspired.

To reach our goal, we need to shift how we think, talk and do safety.  We need to start at the top and ensure the leadership team are proactive and progressive, ensuring the company is committed and invested.

We need to get our safety lingo right.