Health and safety communication drives behaviour

Health and safety communication versus unwritten rules of silence, is the final frontier of workplace behaviour and culture.

A study of unsafe conditions at work in the USA found that lack of health and safety communication, and a culture of silence, remained silent killers.

Health and safety implementation consultants VitalsSmarts unpack causes and cures for communication in the report in ‘Silent Danger; The Five Crucial Conversations That Drive Workplace Safety’.

In the USA, lost time injuries have dropped 55% in the seven years up to 2008, across all industries and regions. However, the improvements have begun to stall. Still about 5600 people are killed on the job and more than 4 million are injured per year.

Most health and safety gains in workplace can be attributed to improvements in;
• Equipment and technology
• Processes
• Policies
• Systems
• Training
• Management tools such as leadership, quality, statistics, project management.

Workplace culture is self-sustaining

However, these formal tools often fail to address challenges that are less formal, cultural in nature, and exist unacknowledged like icebergs below the waterline. These overlooked obstacles include entrenched habits, social norms, and informal practices.

The study probed below the surface by looking for unsafe conditions that are broadly recognized yet allowed to continue because of cultural norms and social taboos.

The ugly secret behind most workplace injuries is that someone is aware of the threat well in advance, but is either unwilling or unable to speak up.

The greatest danger today is not from ignorance or inattention to risks, but from silence. The next leap forward in workplace safety will come from changes to behavior. Unless and until the code of silence is broken, we’ll continue to suffer completely avoidable losses in both health and performance.

Health and safety behaviour study

Through extensive exploratory and confirmatory research, this study uncovered five workplace threats that are especially likely to persist as “undiscussables” in safety-conscious organizations throughout the USA. VitalSmarts studied more than 1600 frontline workers, managers, and safety directors at 30 companies during the first half of 2009.

In the first phase of the research, they conducted on-site interviews and focus groups with 130 people across all levels from eight different companies to find and analyze patterns of poor communication that threatened workplace safety.

They verified these patterns through a survey administered to 1500 employees across all levels from 22 organizations to test whether and how breakdowns in communication were confronted, and to test the impacts these breakdowns had on workplace safety.

• 93% of employees say their work group is at risk from one or more of five undiscussables or “accidents waiting to happen.”
• 48% of employees are aware of an injury or death caused by these workplace risks.
• 74% of employees do not speak up about these five threats.

More training, safety audits, and other tools that address obvious threats to workplace safety, will never be enough to create a truly safe environment.

The hidden threats are the norms, habits, and assumptions embedded in the organization’s culture. These cultural threats inevitably trump formal policies.

When employees see accidents waiting to happen, they feel culturally constrained from saying or doing anything to prevent them from occurring.

Communication is a missing ingredient in safety

The missing ingredient for a health and safety culture was found to be candor. When accountability is carefully and intentionally built into the culture, every employee is responsible for holding his or her peers accountable. In these cultures, the unsafe actions of errant individuals almost never persist.

Ensuring a critical mass of people are willing and able to speak up when safety lines are crossed—irrespective of who crosses them—is crucial to a safety culture.

Safety demands that people look out for each other, remind each other, and hold each other accountable, the reason safety risks persist is because in most organizations, people are unwilling and unable to step up to these most crucial of conversations.

In fact, accountability is the implicit assumption that underlies every safety program. Yet the findings show this assumption is more fiction than fact. Accountability is the critical weakness of the above-the-waterline approach to safety. Silence, not blindness, is the problem.

Five silent sins

The five threats that are most likely to turn into undiscussables, or the five crucial conversations that could drive workplace safety, are;

1. Get It Done. Unsafe practices are justified by tight deadlines.
2. Undiscussable Incompetence. Unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that can’t be discussed.
3. Just this Once. Unsafe practices that are justified as exceptions to the rule.
4. This Is Overboard. Unsafe practices that bypass precautions considered excessive.
5. Are You a Team Player? Unsafe practices that are justified by the supposed ‘good of the team, company, or customer’.

According to the USA study;
• 78% of employees see workers taking unsafe shortcuts, and 19% can cite an injury or death caused by one of these unsafe shortcuts.
• 65% see their coworkers create unsafe conditions due to incompetence
• 18% can cite an injury or death caused by incompetence.
• 26 percent say they speak up and share their concerns with the person who put safety at risk.
• 66% see their coworkers violate safety precautions they’ve discounted
• 22% can cite an injury or death caused by these violations.
• 63% see their coworkers violate safety precautions “for the good of the team, company, or customer.”
• 17% can cite an injury or death caused by specifically such violations.

Afraid to speak up for health and safety

Taken together, these five undiscussables account for a vast number of accidents waiting to happen. And it’s not that the people who remain silent don’t care, some are in agony. Employees describe themselves as “holding their breath,” “feeling tortured as they watch,” and “not able to watch” as their coworkers put themselves and others in danger.

But regardless of their fear, employees don’t speak up when faced with one of these five undiscussable situations. They don’t think it’s their role; they don’t know how; and they are afraid of retaliation. The cultural norms, habits, and assumptions that exist “below-the-waterline” prevent employees from voicing concerns.

A minority speak up for safety

None of the examples above are completely undiscussable. There is always a minority, ranging from 25 to 28 percent, who say they are able to speak up effectively and address the unsafe situation. These few individuals have an amazing impact: 63 percent of the time they create a safer situation.

Organizations that train their employees to speak up when faced with the five undiscussables experience dramatic improvements in their safety record.

Pride International  built a culture of safety where employees held their peers accountable to policies and procedures by speaking up in crucial moments. In the year following their training initiative, the offshore drilling contractor saw a 55 percent drop in their total incident rate and did not report a single accident where employees were required to take time off the job.

Widespread competence in these skills—along with other sources of influence required to ensure people use the skills—is the missing element of most safety cultures. When these “silent dangers” become discussable—when the norm changes from ignoring to confronting—the unsafe behavior stops.

According to the research, when people speak up, 82 percent say their actions result in a safer work environment for everyone.

How to influence health and safety behaviour

Health and safety communication research was recognized by MIT Sloan Management Review as the “Change Management Approach of the Year.” This research outlines six sources of influence that leaders must engage in order to influence and sustain behavior change.

Train for communication

One of these sources of influence is personal ability. Organizations with strong cultures invest substantial resources in increasing the ability of individual employees to speak up skillfully and hold crucial conversations.

The books titled Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations Training, outline these skills.

Health and safety baseline

Establish a baseline and a target for improvement. The fundamental principle of organizational attention is that if you don’t measure it, you don’t care about it. Survey your organization to establish a baseline measure of the five crucial conversations for safety and set a clear target for improvement.

Update the baseline at least quarterly so people can be rewarded and held accountable for progress.

Manage communication

The study advises employers to target six sources of influence. Once you’ve taught your employees crucial skills, guarantee the success of your training initiative by identifying the few vital behaviors that, if changed, will lead to the safety results you desire.

Ensure these behaviors are adopted by targeting six sources of influence that both motivate and enable your employees to change. When used appropriately, this influence process will increase your chances of a successful culture change tenfold.

• This post is an extract from a referenced report by VitalSmarts, based in the USA, represented in Africa by Human Edge.

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sheqafrica is Africa's largest independent SHEQ Magazine, hosting over 2 000 articles and news items since 2007. is owned by the Cygma Group, a global provider of risk management and compliance solutions. is registered as a digital publication with the ISSN.

1 Comment on "Health and safety communication drives behaviour"

  1. I am interested much in becoming a registered auditor.
    what qualifies one to become a registered safety auditor ?

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