One of the great challenges we face in leading a safety culture is how to communicate safety such that it has a lasting impact on employees. Treating safety as a mere policy, an obligation, a training point, or an item on a checklist is a big concern because the level of an employee’s commitment to safety will usually not exceed the level of commitment to safety that they see in their leaders.
Where We Get It Wrong
What I’ve witnessed time and again when observing safety communication at a plant/facility level, a department level, or even a toolbox-talk level is the tendency to “sterilize” and “externalize” the message. This can happen in many different ways—a plant manager reinforcing the importance of complying with a neglected safety policy; a department manager discussing the safety metrics for the department over the past month; a toolbox-meeting leader citing an interesting statistic for a certain type of injury or unsafe behavior.
While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with including these things in your safety communication, making these things the focal point subtly reinforces the perception of employees that safety is something “outside” of their own personal experiences and values. Besides, as interesting as a statistic may be in the moment, almost no one remembers it afterward.
A better way to communicate an “internalized” safety culture—and to enhance the impact of your safety communication—is to create what is known as a vicarious experience through the use of stories.
What in the world is a “vicarious” experience? Technically, it is “an experience that occurs in the imagination through the feelings, emotions, and actions of another.” In short, a vicarious experience means that I get to fully experience the impact of someone else’s tragedy without personally getting hurt. It capitalizes on the connection and empathy we feel toward others who have suffered a tragedy, and it does this by telling that person’s story.
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