Watch Their Back


Persuading someone to work safely is a sales job, says John Drebinger. And there is just one rule: Make sure all your safety communications are appropriate to the work place. Youll immediately lose anyone who finds your effort to communicate inappropriate, so if theres a question [about a story or an image or a word], dont use it.

That said, you must do whatever it takes to be effective as a safety communicator.

In his book Mastering Safety Communication, Drebinger writes that NASAs Eugene Kranz, faced with the probability that the Apollo 13 astronauts might not make it home alive, responded with a phrase that should be the motto of all safety professionals: Failure is not an option.

Selling safety

Safety meetings have a reputation for being boring, Drebinger acknowledges. You need to be passionate about your subject; you need to give the why information before the what-you-need-to-do information. Give people the safety information they need in a way they want.

How to sell safety? Show your audience how safety benefits each of them. Recognize workers objections, and give reasons for needed changes. Put [safety rules] in terms of protecting the younger, new guys who dont have the experience of the older [workers].

A common problem is convincing all employees to wear safety glasses where company policy requires them. Its easier to have a rule that the whole plant wears them, all the time, says Drebinger. You can acknowledge that there are areas [of the plant] that are less dangerous.

He recommends telling workers in the low-risk areas, Youre wearing safety glasses for the next guy, who is working in an area where theyre needed. Drebinger urges companies to go with 100 percent eye protection whenever possible, and ask the experienced people to use the protection for others sake.

Tools and techniques

Open your safety meetings on time. It shows you respect the people in the meeting. And if theres something unique you can do, do it – like using cartoons, silly articles from the tabloid press, or magic tricks. Make it your own.

Drebinger recommends starting safety meetings by asking a question, and bouncing around the room to select people to call on – it keeps the audience more alert if you might call on them next.

Questions can be general, such as:

What did you do last week to improve your safety at work or at home?

How have injuries affected you or your friends or family?

Why do you want to work safely?

What in last weeks meeting was relevant to your job?

Or questions can be specific to the subject of the meeting:

When is fall protection appropriate?

What do you need to know to protect your back?

When do you need to wear personal protective equipment?

Make sure you ask questions you know your audience can answer; never say no or wrong; and dont wait for your audience to volunteer to answer. Call on individuals, by name if possible.

Because there are stupid questions, and people dont want to look stupid, make sure the audience knows how to ask questions outside the meeting.

With routine interruptions – say, a knock at the door – dont pretend they dont happen, Drebinger says. Stop, let the interruption end, then continue.

With inappropriate interruptions, however, ask the troublemaker to save his comments for the end of the meeting. You have to be firm, you have to be in charge, says Drebinger. If you want the audience to pay attention to you, you have to pay attention to them. You need to be interesting, and the subject must be interesting and important to you.

Nix the negatives

Negative directions are ineffective, Drebinger says. Whenever possible, say Be sure to do … rather than Dont do … Analyze your safety instructions and make them positive if possible. In safety, however, negative directions sometimes cant be avoided.

If you have to give negative directions, always follow up to be sure the action is carried out, to be sure you get the required result, he cautions.

Avoid the negative in your own thinking, Drebinger adds. Dont ask yourself, Why cant I reach John? or Why doesnt Mary follow my directions? Instead ask, What can I do different?

And when people say Ive tried everything, says Drebinger, you can be sure theyve only done two things: what they normally do, and one other thing.

Telling stories about accidents is a good way to reach people, and to get them to see that a risk applies to them. But Drebinger cautions, tell the story as if the subject, or the subjects next of kin, was in the room – in a way that would make them proud their story can help protect others. You need your audience to identify with the subject of the story.

Not least, says Drebinger, never prequalify to the negative. Never say Im not a good presenter or I know this is boring or Ive had the flu. Do the best you can, and shut up about the negatives.

Making connections

We use our senses to experience the world, and everyone who can uses all his senses. But most people, Drebinger contends, use either seeing, hearing or touch – that is, their visual, auditory or kinesthetic senses – dominantly. To assure that you are communicating effectively with the largest number of people, try to use visual, auditory and kinesthetic elements in safety meetings.

My listening is very important to communicate with you. But your believing that Im listening is even more important, Drebinger says. To communicate most effectively one-on-one, observe how the other person listens, and then imitate him. Does he look straight at you [when youre talking]? Or does he look away? Just be aware that people will change their listening style in different situations.

Communication style can make people comfortable or uncomfortable. Effective communication means changing your style to match the other persons. Its not easy, and takes practice, but when you can match and mirror another person, you create rapport and eliminate barriers to communication.

Some people look directly at you as they talk; others look away. Some look directly at you when they listen; others look away. Drebinger says that when you observe and match someones look to talk and look to listen rules, no one will consciously notice what you are doing.

With practice, a truly effective communicator can learn to match another persons representational system (visual, auditory or kinesthetic); physiological state, including posture, gestures, facial expressions and breathing rate; voice, including pitch, speed and volume; the level of detail they use in speaking; and their words. This skill, says Drebinger, can have a profound effect on achieving agreement.

And always show respect and caring for your audience, Drebinger says. It lets you make connection.

Wrapping up

Drebinger recommends a comeback when someones creativity is shut down: I know you dont know, but if you did know, how would you …? Creativity is a learned technique, he says, and this seemingly simple phrase is very effective way to open up new possibilities.

To make both the giver and the receiver of criticism more comfortable, he encourages people to ask their co-workers to look out for them. Once colleagues have someones permission to comment, its easier for them to say, Susan, as you know, you need to keep your gloves on while filling drums… or Hey, Bob, you know that electrical switch youre working on needs to be tagged out if youre taking a break.

Some final Drebinger tips for more effective safety meetings: never use a podium; move around throughout your audience; always use a microphone or other sound amplification system; if youre giving safety training, be sure to treat your trainees as an audience. And finish on time.

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