Building safety momentum with continuity

I travel all over the world talking at various conferences and to many different organisations about how to build and maintain safety momentum. Regardless of industry – oil, gas or water pipeline, mining, manufacturing, or construction – a common response to my suggestions is that “We saw an improvement in safety performance for several months after we had you out to our site (or implemented the suggestions you provided at the conference we attended). Then, something happened. So we did something else and we could never get back the momentum we lost.”

These comments are typically followed by a question: “What did we do wrong?” My response is simple: “You failed to create continuity“, and, I can attest with nearly 20 years of helping companies prevent injuries, it is not rocket science. It is behavioural science.

Benefits of behavioural science

What 120 years of behavioural science tells us is that your employees will value what leaders value. And what employees value will translate into action. If safety is truly valued over production at your pipeline facility, then you will always see decisions in favour of safety over production when such a choice point exists. Furthermore, over the long term, you will get more production with this approach because you are preventing “˜down time’ resulting from injuries or property damage (not to mention the direct costs of these events).

So, how do you visibly demonstrate that safety is a value in your organisation? You walk the talk. There is no need to “˜over justify’ safety with promises of rewards and trinkets. Yes, these things are nice and when used properly send a positive message. However, when used as a primary means of motivating safety, the result is predictable. You get changes in behaviour when the rewards are in effect (and that is assuming you are focusing the rewards on behaviours rather than on avoiding injuries). Regardless, these improvements are lost when the rewards are removed. Worse yet, a majority of safety incentive programs I’ve helped to improve have focused on avoiding injuries. These programs often produce under-reporting of injuries amongst a host of other problems (that would require another paper to address). So, to build safety momentum without over justifying it, you program for continuity. To accomplish this, I recommend you do three things during 2013. Each is discussed in turn below.

1. Get people excited about safety

Have someone with a powerful yet practical message address your workforce at a company event. A well-tested keynote speaker can get people talking about safety. And, this talk can translate into action if the message causes people to see things differently after the message than they did before. Indeed, my definition of learning is doing something differently after being taught than before.

You should avoid messages that are scare tactics such as those provided by safety speakers that recount their accidents. While these messages are attention-grabbing, the information quickly turns useless when employees get back to work. This is because often our work environments are sufficiently different than the speaker’s. And, when the entire talk focuses on a single event, there is plenty of opportunity to psychologically discount the points being made. (This does not tend to occur when a speaker uses a vivid story merely to illustrate a specific point.)

Finally, scare tactics don’t work because our work environment brings forth habitual behaviours and the “˜it won’t happen to me’ mentality that is firmly grounded in employees’ prior experiences working in that environment. For example, we’ve all experienced the time-saving convenience of using a chair to change a light bulb without getting hurt. So, even though we know better, we do it anyway because we get the benefits of time saving and convenience and don’t get hurt. This personal experience will overcome the short-term emotional response we may have had when hearing about the tragedy of another person.

Thus, when considering a speaker, find someone with a powerful message about a topic of relevance to your organisation. Have the speaker customise the talk to fit your needs. And, ensure there are three or four novel and practical “˜take-aways’ that your employees can put to immediate use regardless of their role, position, or industry. Look for a speaker who is credentialed in a certain area and has practical experience to back up those credentials.

Practical experience provides relevant stories and credentials allow for demonstrations that bring specific points to life. And, a good keynote speaker will make your event memorable because the stories and demonstrations are relevant to you and your employees. Proper stories provide lessons through imagery which can be easily recalled despite personal experiences that may tell us differently. Indeed, vivid recollection is critical for lessons learned in a keynote speech to be applied in a work environment. If the stories are discounted during the speech, they will surely be discounted when working.

Lastly, if the speaker cannot tell you what he plans to “˜tell you’, or cannot adapt his or her message to fit with the theme of your conference, move on to the next. Too often I’ve been entertained by a speaker whose talk lacks the substance that I came to get from the conference. Almost as often I’ve heard different speakers tell the same stories. Thus, a final criterion should be to ensure that the content to be shared is the speaker’s original material.

2. Invest in your people

Because they are often overlooked, I recommend that you build the skill set and confidence of your front-line supervisors and middle managers. More specifically, seek out someone with expertise in human behaviour to train a fresh and practical approach to influencing others without the need to rely on formal authority. Ensure that this person does not simply teach clichés from business management models. For example, we’ve all heard about the “˜feedback sandwich’.

The sandwich approach to providing feedback specifies that when you talk to an employee about his or her performance you should start with “˜positive feedback’ for what they are doing well, then add the “˜corrective feedback’ for what you want them to change, and finally end with “˜positive feedback’ to leave them “feeling good about themselves and the interaction.” This is something that shouldn’t be done. In reality, the behavioural science has shown that this approach merely confuses people.

Feedback is, by definition, information about performance that allows one to know whether to sustain or change that performance. Thus, both positive and corrective feedback should be able to stand alone. A qualified behavioural strategist will help you create the path towards a culture where this is possible. If the person you hire to work with your supervisors subscribes to management clichés, find someone else. Better yet, find someone who can talk about the science behind the principles he or she teaches and does so in a manner that people can understand and remember. If done properly, the keynote speaker you select to fulfil recommendation one, should be able to fulfil recommendation two. The benefit of using the same person is that you can produce some continuity in theme from one activity to the next.

Continuity helps us avoid perceptions of “˜flavour-of-the-month’ among our employees and demonstrates commitment to a course of action. Moreover, this consultant or trainer will now be somewhat familiar to your workforce. Psychological science has demonstrated that familiarity increases likeability which improves credibility. Credibility will assist you in obtaining buy-in to the material to be trained. Buy-in is a form of commitment that will make it more likely for the information trained to be put to use in the field.

Moreover, when this information is a more detailed extension of the three or four topics highlighted in a keynote speech, you are by definition facilitating learning. Remember, doing something differently/better after training than before is the definition of learning. Is this not what you want from your training? Continuity of information will make learning more likely.

3. Involve your employees in their own safety

Once you have supported your supervisors to be better champions of safety, it is time to encourage participation among the employees who are the primary beneficiaries of safety – those doing the hazardous work. And, for three decades, research in business settings has shown us that the most effective way to involve employees in their own safety is to start at least an informal observation and feedback process to address critical safety-related behaviours.

What people do determines the outcomes you get, including the number of lost days your pipeline facility experiences and your recordable injury rate. If we increase safety-related behaviours that could have prevented the injuries and property damage your organisation has historically experienced, we will identify problem areas and implement solutions before the injuries occur. In fact, it is such a foundation of observation and feedback that can help you to start building a safety culture where positive and corrective feedback can stand alone as suggested in the example above. This is another example of continuity.

Ensure that the person or group that you select to assist with employee involvement has a track record of implementing successful employee-driven behaviour-based safety processes. A Ph.D.-level behavioural scientist can typically direct your implementation and help your facility to overcome any barriers to success, both real and imagined. Moreover, if you prefer not to implement a full-blown behaviour-based safety process, a good behavioural strategist will be able to work with you and a team of your employees to help set-up a less formal process that will produce visible benefits as you consider the merits of a more formal program. If you do this, ensure that the more simple process is built upon the same foundation as the more formal process so that, like above, there can be continuity to the next step when you are ready to go there.

Concluding thoughts

My many years of experience assisting companies develop leaders and reduce their injury rates tells me that if you implement the recommendations contained in this article during the first half of 2013, you will see visible improvements in safety on a day-to-day basis and also in your key safety performance measures (e.g., recordable injury rate) by the end of the year. You are also likely to see improved production and a better “˜bottom line’. I also expect you will see improved employee morale. Indeed, one client recently commented that after following such a path they successfully eliminated “˜grievances’ from occurring at their facility, even in response to policy violations that were appropriately disciplined with lengthy suspensions.

This is unheard of in a union facility and is likely the result of employees feeling that they were being treated more fairly now than before. Investing into and involving your employees in matters that affect them provides the continuity to achieve this type of change. And, promoting changes not only in behaviours, but also beliefs is the essence of culture change! And, culture change will only come from continuity of processes. So, not unlike the wheels on a car, it is a cycle of continuity that will help you build safety momentum and keep your pipeline company moving forward.

Thomas E. (Ted) Boyce, Ph.D. is a behavioural strategist, corporate trainer, executive coach and keynote speaker. He is currently President and Senior Consultant with the Centre for Behavioural Safety, LLC. The Centre is a safety and leadership consulting firm that turns managers into leaders and helps companies create an injury-free workplace.
Learn more at or contact Dr Boyce directly at {encode=”” title=””}

Send this to a friend