An effective way to improve conversations about safety is to show people what a productive conversation looks and sounds like. And to really bring a model safety conversation to life you ideally do it ‘in the field’, where real hazards and unsafe behaviours lurk – even rearing their ugly heads during the training exercise itself, like on a recent coaching session at a client’s site.

We chose a waste handling area to demonstrate a model SUSA (Safe and UnSafe Acts) discussion because they’re often a rich source of err… ‘improvisation’, um… ‘creative behaviour’. Us safety people often have a sixth sense that’s peculiarly tuned to pick up on things that look odd or out of place and telegraph possible unsafe practices. This occasion was a good example. Some way into the discussion I noticed a lanyard hanging from a piece of equipment and attached to it was a specifically shaped piece of metal. I knew straightaway what this was for but, as this was a safety conversation demo, I asked the question anyway: what does this do?

Man in a hard hat stacking boxes

Basically when pushed into the door latch it would disable the interlock allowing the cardboard waste compactor to be operated with the door open. The business end of this unit is a hydraulic ram that crushes cardboard into a bale with considerable force and the door provides the guard against someone putting their hand in the moving ram. My observation prompted another SUSA question: what’s the worst accident that could happen here?

The individual operating the compactor first suggested that his worst injury might be a cut hand. But after some more productive discussion he conceded that he might in fact lose all of his fingers. So we made a commitment that he would stop disabling the interlock before the ram disabled him.

Why was he doing this though?

Quite simply because bypassing the interlock meant he could get more cardboard into the bale. As we walked away from the area the manager realised how this practice had come into being:

“All we told them was that each bale cost a fortune to dispose of and that we should pack as much cardboard as possible into each bale.”

Their workforce had devised this unsafe work method to bypass the interlock, source an improvised ‘key’ and put themselves at risk all in the interest of giving the boss what they thought he wanted. Yet things might have been very different (and safer) if the manager had stressed that safety was not to be compromised to pack the bales more efficiently but he never imagined that people would take things to this extreme.

When you set targets and objectives for your workforce, always stress the importance of safety and your belief that no one should get hurt trying to achieve them. Because otherwise out in the wilderness of the frontline, your commands risk being misinterpreted and endangering people’s lives in ways you never intended.