Improving Safety Through Communication
Recently we have heard about serious accidents and fatalities in our industry that have had a significant impact on the injured employees, their fellow workers, their family and friends, and virtually everyone else who knows them. These accidents should not have happened, and when we look at the events leading up to some of them, they could be described by the famous quote from “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Freeman Teague Jr. said, “Nothing is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood.” Think about your most recent conversation regarding a topic not related to work. It might be the football game over the weekend, or maybe it was the basketball game last night. Whatever the conversation was about, did you have a problem getting your point across? Did your audience understand what you were saying? Did they respond with questions or suggestions about the topic? Did they have a difference of opinion? How was your discussion left? Were you hesitant to point out a problem or issue that the others did not identify? I suggest that you did not have a problem sharing your thoughts and ideas about the subject, and I believe we need to carry that same process and attitude into the workplace.
In order for communication to be successful, all parties must participate. It is interesting that in delivering or receiving messages, we often trust nonverbal behaviors more than verbal behaviors. Our individual cultures, backgrounds and biases all play into how we perceive a message. We may have a feeling of superiority (“I am the journeyman and I know more than an apprentice or groundman.”), a feeling of defensiveness (“I am the new guy, so I will not say anything to get along.”) or we may let our ego get in the way (“I have been in this business for 20 years.”). We may be talking too fast and not speaking clearly, and sometimes as listeners, we focus on the words instead of the facts. We may take things for granted as we often believe certain information has no value or we think we are already aware of the facts. We are influenced by our frames of reference, values, beliefs, knowledge and experiences, and remember, we do not see things the same way while under stress. Add to that the noise from external surroundings that can impede communication, and we have a surefire recipe for failure.
So, while discussing your tailboard, pre-job briefing or change in the work process, did you make yourself clear and understood? Was your audience engaged, asking questions and making suggestions? Did you lay out the work plan and identify the hazards so everyone understood? Did you listen to everyone who had a question or suggestion on the work process even if it was the new guy? What if someone questioned part of the plan, identified a hazard that was not mentioned or suggested another way of doing the work? How did you respond? Was everyone truly engaged in the conversation?
Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, what can I do right now to make my work environment safer and myself a safer worker? How about taking personal responsibility for our behaviors by improving our own communication? When each and every employee takes personal responsibility and becomes directly involved in the safety process by improving communication at their level, success toward zero accidents and injuries can become a reality. I believe Yoda said it best in “The Empire Strikes Back”: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
There are many safety initiatives that want us to adapt our behaviors in order to become safer workers. In taglines we are encouraged to “be our brother’s keeper,” “focus on the moment,” and keep our “heads and hands in the same place.” I contend that with all the safety improvement programs available, it can boil down to us doing something very basic – improving our communication. To borrow a phrase from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “If you see something, say something,” and to that I would add, “Do something.” I believe part of improving our safety communication is really simple: We need to remember to take care of each other out there.
About the Author: Michael J. Getman, CUSP, MBA, has more than 41 years of utility industry experience. He has served in a variety of positions from line apprentice to acting general manager, and he is currently safety manager at Clark Public Utilities. Getman is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers and the Clark College Power Utilities Advisory Committee. He is also an at-large board member of the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network and serves as board secretary. Getman is the 2013 recipient of the Carolyn Alkire Safety Advocate Award.