6 Communication Techniques to Overcoming Workplace Safety Obstacles

Motivating employees to make substantive changes in workplace practices or in their health behaviors is no easy task. While many managers are adept at conveying compliance information, the most effective managers take it to the next level by influencing behavior and engaging employees. They promote a sense of responsibility among employees for managing their own safety and health and give them the resources and opportunities to do so. The way they communicate is key to their success.

1. Overcome objections and foster a safety culture: use storytelling

Disney theme parks are famous for their cleanliness. In a recent Business Insurance article, Trevor Larson, senior vice president of facilities and operations at Walt Disney World in Orlando notes that employees do not go through cleanliness training. “People develop that lens on their own. It’s a value.” He notes that one way value is instilled is through ‘the power of storytelling’ and that Disney also uses the technique to motivate safe work practices.

In many situations, stories can come from the experiences of employees. There is an immediate emotional connection that employees will remember. A printer disabled a safety device and lost the tips of two fingers. His story was a powerful counter to those who complained that the device was ‘slowing down production’.

2. Identify problems and solutions: use video

Employees at a warehouse were experiencing excessive muscle strains and sprains. Some employees were writing it off as the ‘nature of their work,’ but the manager took a video of the processes and asked the insurance company to review it. An ergonomist identified issues that the employer was not able to see and together they analyzed the video and developed solutions to reduce the number of injuries.

Video can also be an effective way to communicate problems in the field or to train employees. It’s important to be cautious though when using ‘off-the-shelf’ videos for training. If the employees can’t relate the message to their worksite or there are significant language barriers, a packaged e-learning program may not work.

3. Routine hampers awareness: be creative with visual reminders

Much has been written about the effectiveness of photos, diagrams and graphics in promoting workplace safety. The pictographs, or graphics, used on safety signs should be concise, high recognizable, eye-catching, done professionally, placed properly, and reinforce desired outcomes. They are a good reminder of the importance of safe behavior, but when long-term employees see them on a daily basis, they can blend into the surroundings and become invisible. It’s important to test and assess their effectiveness as well as reinforce with training.

Bob Risk, a national sales manager for safety at Staples Facility Solutions, noted that workers wearing protective gear are being compliant but they may not be safe. Some companies rotate the color of their protective gloves to keep employees alert. Quoted in Business Insurance, he said, “When you’re working, your hand becomes an extension of the tool you work with…You look at (an) orange (glove) for long enough, you don’t see it anymore.”

4. A noisy environment: develop visual cues and pre-coded messages

When it comes to work place injuries noise is usually associated with hearing loss, but there has been growing concern that noise may actually increase the risk of occupational injury. Authors Susan Cooper, Ph.D. and Matt Morrill of CavCom, Inc. offer these helpful solutions:

  • “Develop visual cues: Where obstructed vision is not a problem, consider developing a system of hand signals or written text to clearly convey messages without relying on auditory communication. For emergency alerts, investigate alarm systems with flashing lights or vibrating pagers.
  • Create pre-coded messages: In advance, develop a predetermined set of short, predictable code words and key phrases for your most common operations. Expected messages are typically easier to recognize than novel communications.”

5. Management commitment: strengthen communication habits

A strong safety culture depends on the commitment from management. Unwittingly, management removes itself when it relinquishes the responsibility to line supervisors. One of former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill’s first tasks was to strengthen safety and in 1987 he instituted a rule that unit vice presidents must send him a report on every workplace injury within 24-hours of their occurrence. The process helped open eyes that it was possible to change worker safety and incident rates declined.

6. Employees’ sense of responsibility for their health: use different media

While more and more companies are integrating wellness programs with worksite safety, many fail to establish a health-conscious organizational culture and participation falters. Successful wellness programs depend on clear messaging, promoting a sense of responsibility for employees to manage their own health. To be effective, consistency and the use of different media is key.

A cardinal rule of thumb in advertising is that potential customers usually need to see the name of a product seven times or more before they’re motivated enough to even think about making a purchase. Use different media, such as newsletters, posters and video to reinforce the message. And don’t forget about the message given by the workplace environment. There are many things employers can do to make it easier for employees to make healthy choices, such as healthier food options, more options for physical activity, extending wellness opportunities to family members, and so on.

A speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Annual Conference & Exposition, Don R. Powell, president and CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine in Farmington Hills, Michigan, noted that about 25% of physician visits each year and 55% of emergency room visits are unnecessary. He suggested that employers should provide printed employee resource guides, have a nurse hotline, and websites that employees can use to evaluate whether their medical symptoms can be treated at home, whether they should visit a doctor and what questions to ask when they visit a physician. Such guides typically include an easy-to-use flow chart that employees can follow to determine whether they need immediate medical care.

While he noted that printed self-care resource guides are more likely to be used by employees of all ages than websites or nurse hotlines when considering the urgency of a medical problem, offering a variety of delivery methods – as well as communicating the program’s availability through newsletters, emails and posters – can make employees more likely to use self-care programs.

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Author | Speaker | Certified Risk Manager | Certified Work Comp Advisor

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