EHS Management, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Supervisor-Employee Safety Conversations: Tips for Success

Is it possible to overemphasize the importance of safety conversations between frontline supervisors and the workers who report to them? Perhaps it would be if such conversations were a common occurrence. But according to one source cited by OSHA, these exchanges are remarkably rare.

Supervisors handshaking in warehouse

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In its pamphlet Better Safety Conversations, OSHA cites data developed by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzerfor their book Crucial Conversations, Skills for Talking When the Stakes Are High.

“The authors of Crucial Conversations and their colleagues conducted a survey of 1,500 workers in 22 organizations, which found that 93 percent of employees say their workgroup is currently at risk from a safety issue that is not being discussed,” says OSHA. “Almost half knew of an injury that happened because someone didn’t speak up. These are incidents waiting to happen. Encouraging people to speak up when they see something going wrong can help avoid incidents, injuries, and fatalities. ‘If you see something, say something’ is a saying we have all learned when travelling, and it also applies to safety.”

Nonthreatening Questions

OSHA’s seven-page pamphlet, which is directed at supervisors and other members of management, is packed with reasons why safety conversations are important; information on the different kinds of conversations that can occur, which is often a factor of where the conversation is occurring; how to develop trust while ensuring that critical information is received and critical safety information is dispensed; and recognizing and overcoming the reasons safety conversations do not happen.

The greatest obstacle to productive safety conversations is employee fear that raising concerns will result in retaliation. All supervisors, even the friendliest, need to state up front that no employee will get into trouble for raising safety concerns. A useful next step is to pose a nonthreatening question. One good question suggested in OSHA’s pamphlet, which can help get an employee talking, focuses on the employee’s knowledge: “If you could address one safety concern—say, by buying equipment, changing a work process, or changing a work rule—what would it be?”

Listening Techniques

To build empathy, it is also essential that the employee believe he or she is being heard correctly. OSHA says supervisors can do this by building active listening techniques. For example:

  • Mirror or repeat what the person is saying.
  • Paraphrase the message.
  • Summarize content.
  • Ask for clarification.
  • Acknowledge feelings.
  • Avoid reacting with criticism.
Safety meeting

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The Power of Stories

Another effective conversation tool is storytelling. Telling a short, compelling story describing a real event is a good way supervisors can show that they have experience with the consequences of on-the-job injuries and are committed to preventing them. OSHA recommends that the story be short—just a few sentences delivered in 15 to 20 seconds. For example: “I knew a worker who was injured doing that on the job. After a few surgeries and three months of recovery, he managed to come back to work. Unfortunately, he was never the same. The trauma of the event impacted his confidence and he just couldn’t do things he did before.”

Furthermore, supervisors should not wait until stories come to them; they should actively find them. “Collect stories, and know about incidents that have occurred in your workplace, your company, and your industry,” says OSHA. “Do your research about injuries, illnesses, and fatalities that have occurred to workers in your industry or do the same work that you do. Follow the news so you can use a current event in your area. Stories that are fresh and close to you have more power.”

These are just a few of the many pieces of advice in OSHA’s pamphlet. The message for supervisors is clear—communication skills will promote open and regular safety conversations with employees. For supervisors who feel they need improvement in this area, OSHA’s pamphlet is a good place to start.

Learn More at Safety Culture 2019

Patrick KarolTo learn more about safety leadership for supervisors, join us at the Safety Culture 2019 event September 18-20 in Denver, Colorado! At the conference, you will have the opportunity to learn practical tips for improving supervisor communication and leadership from Patrick J. Karol, CSP, ARM, SMS, President of Karol Safety Consulting, LLC.

Patrick’s session, “Safety Leadership for Supervisors: Building Crucial Allies to Engage Employees and Spread Safety Culture Throughout Your Organization,” will help you drive safety culture with the help of your supervisors, apply the strategies of successful leaders, and influence employee behaviors in a way that promotes safety!

Register for Safety Culture 2019 Today