The Silent Secret for Successful Safety Training

shhhh-feature-featureMark J. Steinhofer, CUSP, CHST, CSP

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

Nobody laughs or even snickers. After an awkward pause, Little Johnnie tells them that the day’s topic is fall protection. He points to one of the guys 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 a question. There’s no response, so he grins again and tells everyone to stay safe as they shuffle off to the day’s tasks.

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

Little Johnnie 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 he’s training. As a result, he just wasted everyone’s time and had zero effect on the crew’s well-being.


Words mean little

Humans do far more “listening” with our eyes than we do with our ears. Scientists say that only about 7 percent of messages we receive comes through the words. Another 28 percent comes from the way those words are delivered. But a full 55 percent of messages are 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 than what’s actually being said. The professional’s physical appearance, the body language, the tone, and the pace of the voice determine how carefully the workers will listen and how much they’ll retain.


Impressions come first

It’s true that you 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, our eye contact, the way we shake hands — all of those factors are studied and analyzed before we get a chance to open our mouths.

Little Johnnie drove up to a rural jobsite in a shiny new truck that looked like it had just been waxed. His clothes marked him as a “suit” that has never performed a day of physical labor. His smile was obviously faked, and his lame golf joke told most of the guys that he had more in common with the utility’s management team than the guys who keep the lines energized.

So it comes as no surprise that they didn’t want to listen. When he called out one of their co-workers for unsafe behavior, he embarrassed the guy, so instead of regarding Little Johnnie as a colleague, they see him as a safety “cop.” The negative first impressions his body language and attitude created destroyed any chance of 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 dangerous tasks.


You’re dealing with PEOPLE

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

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

Open, extended arms indicate acceptance, while crossed arms tend to signal defensiveness and tightly crossed legs signal disagreement. If both arms and legs are crossed, the reaction is very negative.

People who are seated on the edge of a chair and leaning forward are usually interested and involved in what you’re saying. On the other hand, sitting with legs crossed and moving the elevated foot in a circle signifies boredom or impatience.

E refers to Eye Contact. It’s been said that the eyes are the “windows to the soul.” If we’re talking with someone and they don’t look us in the eyes, we assume that they’re not paying attention. When you look someone else in the eyes, they’re more likely to perceive you as an honest person who is interested in what they have to say.

When people are uncomfortable or uneasy, they tend to avoid eye contact, so if someone tells you they’re okay with what you said but are looking away, they probably aren’t being truthful. That’s the time to ask more probing questions or come at the issue from a different angle. If the person you’re speaking with raises one eyebrow, it’s a sign that they don’t believe you. If they raise both eyebrows, it means that you’ve surprised them.

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

Now imagine standing among the workers, in the middle of the group or along the edges. That sends a message that the safety person is a peer, not a supervisor. It downplays the authority role and makes the crew more open to what’s being said. Just as important, they’ll be more likely to speak up or raise concerns.

P refers to Presentation. How do you deliver your message? Far too many safety professionals use the classroom model and lecture, which sends the message that they think they’re smarter.

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 do that. 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 is shorthand for Looks. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of first impressions. How we dress and groom ourselves sends a clear message to others. In the example, 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 him from the crew and emphasized the differences between him and them.

That doesn’t mean you should look to the sloppiest guy on the crew for inspiration. But small things 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 jobsite suggests that you’re familiar with the work that’s being performed and reinforces the idea that the company takes safety seriously.

E addresses how you Express Emotion. In my experience, the 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 start to see it rub off. (The reverse is valid, too. If you act depressed or despondent, the people you encounter will reflect that emotion.)

Starting over

So let’s imagine that Little Johnnie drives up 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 teeth. Rather than stopping ten feet away, he heads over to a couple of the crew members and asks what they thought of last evening’s basketball game or if they’ve ever hunted in this part of the state.

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

He 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 things correctly, he doesn’t scold him in front of everyone, but takes him aside and suggests that there’s a better way. The workers get the message without losing face.

Paying attention to non-verbal elements does more than make today’s message more effective. It allows safety professionals to build rapport with the workers, making each subsequent conversation easier and more productive. And, when corrective actions need to be taken, the workers will be more accepting and less resentful. That creates a stronger safety culture.


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