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The Silent Secret About Successful Safety Communication


It’s a chilly morning, and the crew is eager to make progress on the substation upgrade before tomorrow’s snow. A shiny pickup truck pulls up to the job site, the driver’s door opens and out walks a good-looking guy in neatly pressed khakis, a white button-down shirt and highly polished lace-up shoes. He stops a couple yards away from the crew, looks at everyone, breaks into a cheesy smile and makes a joke about his golf game.

Nobody laughs or even snickers. After an awkward pause, “Joe Office” tells the crew that fall protection is the day’s safety discussion topic. He points to one of the crew members and mentions that he saw him working without a harness yesterday, and that isn’t acceptable. He drones through the rest of the lesson and asks if anyone has any questions. There’s no response from the crew, so Joe Office grins again and tells everyone to stay safe as they shuffle off to the day’s tasks.

Words Mean Little
What Joe Office doesn’t realize is that nobody paid attention to anything he said. Oh, they heard him just fine, but Joe lost most of the crew members before he opened his mouth, and the rest tuned out within the first 30 seconds of hearing him speak. They pretended to listen while they thought about other things.

It’s true that Joe Office knows a lot about safety. Unfortunately, he has no clue what his body language projects and can’t read the body language of the workers with whom he’s communicating. As a result, in this scenario he wasted everyone’s time and had zero effect on the crew’s well-being.

The fact is that humans do far more listening with our eyes than we do with our ears. According to Mehrabian and Wiener, and Mehrabian and Ferris, when a verbal message is delivered, a typical human being only receives about 7 percent of the message via the words that are spoken. Thirty-eight percent of how a person receives a message is due to the way those words are delivered. And a full 55 percent of the message is conveyed through the speaker’s body language.

In other words, when a safety professional speaks to a group of workers, the nonverbal components of his or her message have a far greater impact on listeners than what’s actually being said. The professional’s physical appearance, body language, tone and pace of voice determine how carefully the workers will listen and how much they’ll retain.

Impressions Come First
You truly never get a second chance to make a first impression. Before someone processes a word we say, they take in the way we look and make judgments about our enthusiasm and sincerity. Our posture, whether or not we make eye contact, the way we shake hands – all of those factors are studied and analyzed before we get a chance to open our mouths.

In my earlier example, Joe Office drove up to a rural job site in a shiny new truck that looked like it had just been waxed. His clothes marked him as a “suit” who had never performed a day of physical labor. His smile seemed fake, and his golf joke told most of the crew that he had more in common with the utility’s management team than the people who keep the lines energized.

So it comes as no surprise that the crew members didn’t want to listen to Joe. Not only that, but when he called out one of their co-workers for unsafe behavior, he embarrassed the crew member. Instead of regarding Joe Office as a colleague, the crew saw him as a safety cop. The negative first impressions created by his body language and attitude destroyed any chance of him developing a relationship with the crew. He can’t gain their trust, and that’s unfortunate, because his knowledge could protect them as they perform hazardous tasks.

You’re Dealing with PEOPLE
Joe Office needs to remember that his job involves dealing with PEOPLE, and by that, I’m not just referring to the crew. PEOPLE is a handy acronym that makes it easy to remember the six key elements of body language.

P: Posture and Gestures
Nonverbal communications are transmitted via the eyes, face, hands, arms, legs and posture. For example, you can learn a lot by paying attention to someone’s hands. If they are tightly clenched, the person is probably feeling pressure and may not be open to what you’re saying. If the person is rubbing an ear or eye, it usually means he is uncertain about what you’re telling him. While a hand along the cheek or chin suggests that the person is thinking, cupping the hand over the mouth suggests that she may be trying to hide something. And if the person leans back and supports his head with both hands, he may feel confident or even superior.

Open, extended arms indicate acceptance, while crossed arms tend to signal defensiveness. Tightly crossed legs signal disagreement. If both arms and legs are crossed, the person’s feelings are highly negative.

People who are seated on the edge of a chair and leaning forward usually are interested and involved in what you’re saying. On the other hand, someone who is sitting with his legs crossed and moving his elevated foot in a circle may be bored or impatient.

E: Eye Contact
It’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. If we’re speaking with someone and he doesn’t look us in the eye, we often assume he’s not paying attention. When you look someone in the eye, he is more likely to perceive you as an honest person who is interested in what he has to say.

A person who is uncomfortable or uneasy tends to avoid eye contact, so if someone tells you he is OK with what you said but is looking away, he probably isn’t being truthful. That’s the time to ask more probing questions or to approach the issue from a different angle. If the person you’re speaking with raises one eyebrow, it’s a sign that he doesn’t believe you. If he raises both eyebrows, it generally means that you’ve surprised him.

O: Orientation
How and where you stand sends strong messages to workers. Often, crew members are clustered together and the safety professional stands alone at a distance. The effect is similar to a teacher and a classroom of students. That provides power to the safety professional, as well as authority that states, “You’d better listen to me because I’m in charge.”

Now imagine that instead of standing in front of the workers, the safety professional stands either in the middle of them or along the edge of the group. This sends a message that the safety professional is a peer, not a supervisor. It downplays the professional’s authoritarian role and makes the crew more open to what’s being said. Just as important, workers will be more likely to speak up or raise concerns.

P: Presentation
How do you deliver your message? Far too many safety professionals use the classroom model and lecture, which can send the message that they think they’re smarter than crew members.

Safety briefings and toolbox talks should be conversations. If you position yourself equally and encourage give and take, you’ll find that the group will be more engaged. Asking questions is a great way to spark that engagement. It gives the crew a chance to show off their own knowledge and become more involved in identifying and addressing hazards. In addition, it creates an environment in which it’s acceptable to ask questions and share ideas.

L: Looks
Earlier I mentioned the importance of first impressions. How we dress and groom ourselves sends a clear message to others. In the example at the beginning of this article, the safety professional dressed more like an executive than a utility worker, which sent the message that he was unfamiliar with construction sites. It distanced Joe Office from the crew members and emphasized the differences between him and them.

Keep in mind that small changes can send huge messages. For example, wearing a well-worn pair of work boots will send a much better message than polished loafers. Wearing or carrying the appropriate PPE for the job site suggests that you’re familiar with the work that’s being performed and reinforces the idea that the company takes safety seriously.

E: Expressing Emotion
In my experience, people who are visibly enthusiastic seem to work harder, longer and more accurately than their more somber counterparts. Enthusiasm is contagious, so if you approach the crew with an enthusiastic attitude, you’ll likely start to see it rub off. The reverse is true, too. If you act depressed or despondent, the people you encounter will reflect that emotion.

Starting Over
Let’s imagine that Joe Office drives to the site in a truck that could use a wash. He walks up in Carhartts and work boots, smiling with his eyes instead of his mouth. Rather than stopping 10 feet away, he heads over to a couple of crew members and asks what they thought of last night’s basketball game or if they’ve ever hunted in this part of the state.

Then Joe Office inquires about the work that’s planned for the day. As the workers tell him what they know, he locks eyes with them and nods to demonstrate understanding. He asks the group about any concerns associated with the day’s tasks. One crew member mentions the need for fall protection, so Joe asks the worker how he plans to set up his harness. The group looks over the site and another crew member points out the best places to tie off.

Joe sticks around for a while and walks the site as the crew is working. When he sees proper procedures being followed, he compliments the worker. If someone isn’t doing something correctly, Joe doesn’t scold him in front of everyone; instead he takes the worker aside and suggests that there’s a better way. The worker gets the message without losing face.

As a safety professional, paying attention to the nonverbal elements of communication does more than increase the effectiveness of your messages. It also allows you to build rapport with workers, making each subsequent conversation easier to have and more productive. And when corrective actions need to be taken, workers will be more accepting and less resentful. That creates a stronger safety culture.

About the Author: As manager of HSE services for Safety Management Group, Mark Steinhofer, CHST, CSP, CUSP, has managed safety advisers and worked with diverse clients in the utility, pharmaceutical, construction, chemical and general industries. With two decades of experience in occupational safety and health, Steinhofer also has consulted as an expert witness in several court cases and is currently an adjunct professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, teaching an undergraduate course in construction safety and OSHA standards.

Safety Management, Leadership Development