Safety conversations, safety engagement, ‘taking time to talk’ discussions – call them what you will, people exchanging useful information about their well-being is a fundamental part of a strong safety culture. And regular, constructive, one-to-one conversations about safety with an individual are an excellent way to increase the profile of safety in the mindset of that person.

Yet my recent experiences coaching people to carry out meaningful safety conversations revealed that without guidance, safety conversations tend to:

  • focus on unsafe activity.
  • lead towards the high hazard issues only.
  • be agenda-driven by the person asking the question, rather than led by the person being questioned (who usually suffers the most when things go wrong).

All these pitfalls are important of course, but my attention is drawn to the issue of discussing only the high hazard issues – the ‘big ticket’ items if you will. Quite often, these significant, obvious issues are very much under control but the ‘lower consequence’ issues aren’t.

Two real-life examples

A team of people work in pairs to enter hot glass furnaces to replace refractory lining bricks where the originals have fallen out or degraded. Faced with carrying out such a task, your automatic reaction would be to focus on the temperatures involved, confined space entry and so on.

Yet in reality, the most significant source of injury faced by these individuals was slipping or tripping when exiting and accessing the furnace. Because once inside the furnace, the individuals involved were completely focused on the task in hand and would not cut corners.

Another recent example comes to mind – this time concerning a pressure vessel, where the conventional reaction would be to focus on the pressure and temperature involved. Now, we did cover these aspects of the job, but it rapidly became apparent that the most likely cause of injury was manually handling the 35Kg lid on and off the vessel, as well as slips, trips and falls caused by the cramped conditions (exacerbated by numerous thermocouple wires in the area).

Had we handled the conversation in a typical manner and focused solely on the serious, obvious hazards we’d never have exposed the real areas of concern.

How to avoid missing the small stuff with your safety conversations

  • Adopt a questioning approach: after all, the individual you’re talking to probably knows more about the job than you do.
  • Delve into the detail: make sure that you find out exactly how the job gets done, step-by-step e.g. “Then we lift the lid off the vessel … How do you do that?”.
  • Use your imagination: ask questions based on what you see, like “That lid looks heavy… How much does it weigh?”.
  • Ask carefully worded questions: “What’s the worst injury you could get on this job?” is a question that will expose high hazard issues, whereas “What’s the most likely injury that you could get on this job?” might well be more fruitful.
  • Ask leading questions: “Those thermocouple wires look like a bit of an obstacle… How do you deal with those?” when you spot an obvious hazard that’s been overlooked these help provoke discussion.

Finally, remember that you don’t have to find an unsafe act every time you have a conversation. Most of the time people carry out tasks correctly, so they deserve your praise and recognition to reinforce their behaviour.