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Getting Safety Communications Right with SBAR

Utility workers know getting communications right about safety – especially in pre-work discussions such as job hazard analyses, plans of the day and tailboards – is vital to going home safe. It can also be difficult to accomplish. However, we have seen firsthand the effectiveness of training lineworkers to use a communications tool called SBAR, which stands for “situation, background, assessment, recommendation.”

SBAR was developed by the U.S. military in the 1940s and most notably used in the nuclear submarine sector to convey critical information clearly and quickly. SBAR then spread to aviation crews, firefighters and health-care workers, among others, because its use can help to overcome communication challenges in high-risk situations.

Ineffective team communications can make high-risk situations especially dangerous, even deadly. Here are a couple of examples:

  • In 2010, the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare estimated that 80% of serious medical errors stem from miscommunications among caregivers when patients are being transferred between them. Since then, studies continue to point to miscommunication as a critical factor in patient harm.
  • The deadliest disaster in aviation history was caused in large part by miscommunications among the flight crew and between the flight crew and air traffic control. In that 1977 crash, two Boeing 747s collided on a runway at a Tenerife airport, killing 583 people. Miscommunication as a factor in air crashes also continues, as reported this May.

Multiple factors make communicating safety concerns during high-risk work particularly difficult:

  • A risky situation is stressful and can be confusing. It may be tough to clearly express what you see.
  • Rank, tradition and authority can get in the way. It can feel personally risky to challenge authority.
  • Different communication styles can lead to frustration.
  • Cultural differences can lead to misunderstanding. In the Tenerife disaster, the air traffic controllers were Spanish, and the crew of one of the aircraft were Dutch. This contributed to the Dutch aircraft captain incorrectly believing that he had clearance to take off.
  • To the recipient, a concern expressed by another team member can feel like blame or judgment, which could make the recipient defensive and communication more difficult.
  • After an event happens, the safety risks are typically clear, but our identification and understanding of the risks might not have been so clear before the event.

Using SBAR
SBAR can address these challenges. The tool is essentially a structured way to speak to and with others that can help those conversations be clear, direct, respectful, non-blaming and urgent when needed.

SBAR consists of the following four parts:

  1. Situation: To begin the conversation, you describe to your listeners what is going on that has you concerned.
  2. Background: Next, you briefly provide background information about the situation, including how you think it could impact what you’re trying to accomplish.
  3. Assessment: This is when you provide your analysis of the current situation, its likely causes and what might happen next that could affect team safety.
  4. Recommendation: Conclude by expressing your idea of what should be done so that it can be discussed and agreed upon or met with another recommendation.

Work crews who use SBAR find it helps them express their views about safety at tailboards and during other work planning discussions. It makes speaking up about safety concerns a normal part of how work is planned and not a personal intrusion or criticism. It keeps the focus on solving a problem and allows the crew to be direct yet still respectful of each other. Lastly, it helps everyone go home safe. Here’s an example.

Jim, a lineworker apprentice, is on the site of a customer outage with three senior lineworkers. The crew has identified the need to get to the roof of the building to reach the service drop and weather head. They are discussing the fact that they can’t reach the location with a bucket, but they notice that there is an aerial lift available at the site. The crew lead mentions using just the lift. Jim is concerned because no one has mentioned a pre-use inspection or the use of fall protection with the lift. He feels the crew needs to add these items to the plan so the job will be done safely. Jim uses SBAR to express his concerns and possible solutions.

Situation: Jim begins by saying he understands the situation: The crew has a commitment to taking care of the customer and resolving this issue. He has a clear understanding of the decision-making to this point but also has some safety concerns.

Background: Jim briefly summarizes the options the crew has considered, such as using the bucket truck to reach the location. He agrees with the decision that it is not possible. He supports the use of the aerial lift but thinks the crew has not yet discussed how they will do that safely.

Assessment: At this point, Jim says that unless the crew is clear about how they will use the lift safely, someone could be injured.

Recommendation: Jim recommends that the crew discuss completing a pre-use inspection as well as the use of the same fall protection equipment that they use with the bucket truck.

While this situation is fictional, you can see how the SBAR tool can help lineworkers express their concerns and ideas in a direct, respectful, thoughtful way. We encourage all of you to consider using SBAR to help you focus your conversations so you can go home safe after each shift.

About the Authors: Nathan Boutwell, M.Eng., CSP, SMS, CIT, CUSP, is the business unit manager for Northeast Live Line.

Robert J. Cornet, Ph.D., is a senior communications strategist with extensive experience in change management communications.

Michelle Mannering, Ph.D., has a broad range of communications consulting experience with clients ranging from utilities to health care.