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Q&A: How Safety Professionals Can Improve Communication With Their Workforce

Jan 29, 2024

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Closeup of a safety professional and workers talking on a job site

Effective communication is essential to improving workplace safety and health. Safety professionals must ensure that workers understand their tasks, the hazards associated with them and how to operate safely.

Lindsay Bell, CSP, IG Americas SHEQ human performance manager at Air Products, joined  “The Case for Safety Podcast” and spoke with host Scott Fowler about strategies for building relationships and sharing knowledge with your team.

Fowler: Why are communication and comprehension so important to creating safer workplaces?

Bell: From a basic perspective, you have a regulatory obligation to make sure people understand hazards. Then also from a culture perspective, communication is the building block of what that world-class safety culture looks like. You need to be able to adapt your communication not just for language or visibility barriers, but there’s a lot of context that goes into communication, especially when you’re a safety professional.

Fowler: What challenges do safety professionals face in effectively communicating with their workforce?

Bell: One is translating the materials you want to talk about. There are also visibility barriers. I once had an employee who was colorblind, and he was a mechanic and needed to be able to read schematics. We were able to change the accessibility settings in that program to make it so that he could see them better. You have think about basic things like that.

Also consider how long employees have been with the organization. If you’re talking to a new employee, make sure they know any lingo or acronyms and understand what you are trying to communicate. This is especially important when you’re trying to communicate about safety or hazards.  

Fowler: How can safety professionals learn the best way to communicate with each person on their team?

Bell: Communication and comprehension are about more than basic understanding. They’re also about the worker’s relationship with the person delivering the message. If you don’t have a relationship with your workforce, you may not understand what their needs are.

For example, if someone is colorblind, if English isn’t their first language or if they have a visual impairment. A lot of learning stems from building relationships and knowing the people that you work with. You have to take the time to talk to people and understand the situation.

Fowler: What are some techniques you’ve found to be successful in communication with your workforce?  

Bell: One of the biggest things is to listen more than you speak. You need to understand the context before you can really do anything else. You have to listen, and also understand the difference between impact and intention. Many times communication is misunderstood in the gap between impact and intention. Those misunderstandings can affect our workplace experiences.

Often that's a result of assumptions that we make based on our own perception, based on a person's tone, how they're looking at you or their body language. That can cause misinterpretations of the events around us and the things that we're talking about.

Many times, misunderstandings happen because there's a difference in the impact of what you're saying versus the intent. Then you have people who are on the defensive because your intention did not match how it impacted them. It's really important to understand the intention and the goal in order to communicate clearly and effectively.

You have to think about your tone, how you encourage people to ask questions and how you answer them. For example, if you're doing a root cause analysis, is it about blame or accountability, and how does the employee know the difference?

You need to be on the same page about your intention and how the employee is perceiving you. Does the employee know that you're not trying to get them in trouble, that you really are just trying to solve a problem — that you're on their side? You have to think about how these things come off.

Fowler: What are some effective strategies for communicating with executives to get their buy-in on safety intitiatives?

Bell: Executives are really big on numbers and charts, and you should have a slide deck ready. You have to give them the numbers to back up what you want to do and why.

For instance, if you want to do a training program that helps workers recognize and avoid high-risk situations, put it in terms of dollars and cents. Explain that you want to do the training because you had a certain number of incidents related to employees not recognizing hazards. Those incidents resulted in injuries that led to workers’ compensation costs. The organization can prevent these types of incidents through a training program, resulting in cost savings.

Fowler: How can safety professionals ensure that their training delivers the desired results?

Bell: One thing I like to do with larger groups — because a lot of times you're walking into a room and don't know the people — is to always have support materials. This could be a participant guide that has activities and supplemental information. It’s important to write down any key points or takeaways so employees can digest them at their own pace and refer to them later.

If you have key points you want them to know, you can put that in a wallet card or make a one-pager that summarizes what you're talking about. If you’re doing a virtual training, you can use breakout groups for small group discussions and use polls and other tools within the virtual platform. One of the most important things in virtual training is keeping people within the platform that you’re using. Once you start sending them links, you’re sending them to the rest of the internet where they can get distracted.

Fowler: Anything else you’d like to add?

Bell: One of the biggest things in communication is creating a safe space for questions. When you communicate something and others don’t comprehend it, they’re going to ask questions. You need to be approachable and understand the context of those questions.  

Sometimes someone asks a question and you need to ask them a follow up because they may have less or more knowledge about the subject than you. That question could be very nuanced and beyond your depth, or you may realize that you've spent an hour with this person that was above the level of their understanding. That’s a waste of time for both of you.

You really need to think about that context of who you're teaching, be approachable for questions and be approachable with your answers. Don’t make someone feel inferior for asking a question. In the end, that will help you do your job better.

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