‘Boss jailed for negligence’… ‘Engineering company fined X hundred thousand pounds’… ‘Worker injured in tragic fall from scaffold’.

Doesn’t it seem like fatalities, fines and failures are all we ever talk about in our industry? This, despite all the fantastic work done everyday by safety professionals like you – getting people home safely, so they can enjoy the pleasures in life.

We’re global leaders in safety here in the UK. People around the world look to us for shining examples of how to keep staff healthy and safe at work. Yet still, all media commentators, industry press and professional forums ever seem to focus on, are those miserable, minority, occasions when something goes wrong!

No wonder the general public has a disparaging attitude to what we do for a living – when safety seems forever bogged down in measuring what does or might go wrong, and then pointing the finger at some guilty culprits.

Clearly, it’s important that we learn from our mistakes, but please can we stop being so bloody miserable about it? Because it’s creeping into our day-to-day work. And all it does is reinforce the whole stereotype around safety being negative. You know how it goes:

‘Compulsory safety training today, everyone. Don’t worry though, it shouldn’t take too much of your time.’
‘Really? Can I duck out early? It’s boring and I’ve got so much else on.’
‘Sorry, no. I’ll be as quick as I can but rules are rules, folks.’

If you think about it, this typical conversation (one you’ve no doubt overheard or been involved with) is the logical conclusion of relentless negativity, the kind we’re expected to put up with in our profession.

We’re not doing ourselves any favours

I get it – bad news sells. We have a morbid obsession with other people’s calamities and it shifts newspapers, journals and click rates. But we just never seem to talk about the good stuff in mainstream conversation.

It’s disproportionately weighted in favour of bad news.

Especially when you consider that it’s just as easy to do a root cause analysis of what went right at work, and make an equally big deal out of that – so we make sure the same circumstances happen again.

‘Now you’re speaking my language, Nick!’

I know you get all this. You too realise the significance (or flaw perhaps?) in Heinrich’s triangle – learning exclusively from the many many small incidents and near-misses to prevent fewer, larger accidents ever happening.

But how many of us pause, recognise and learn from the even higher proportion of safe, good behaviours that go right, everyday, all day long?

Just think of all those wasted opportunities to be positive about safety!

So what can you do, right now, to change all this?

I’m glad you feel the same way. Let’s do something, starting now, to shift things in a more positive direction in health and safety.

Here are five things you can do in your organisation, based on successful projects for clients of Tribe, to reach and influence all those colleagues who are stuck in a rut when it comes to safety:

  1. Set-up reward and recognition schemes: give people short and long-term incentives that praise and benefit the kind of behaviour you want to see.
  2. Market positive sticky messages: your language, artwork and themes should build positivity into every aspect of your culture change programme, from the ground upwards.
  3. Encourage your managers to get out, right now: try to catch people doing things correctly at work. Kindly words cost nothing.
  4. Recruit positive heroes: promote workmates who did something really good, and exemplify their stories of positive safety in action.
  5. Recruit champions: empower in-house ambassadors who feel the same way as you about all this, to spread the word. Even more convincing are converted sceptics – those who return from the dark side.

Challenge the negative bias

I accept this is quite a challenge, especially given the wider media’s bias towards sensationalism, division and negativity. But lasting change always begins with empowered individuals and supportive leaders, who together grasp that their behaviour affects everyone around them.

Examine your own attitudes and delivery next time you speak to a colleague or crowd. Are you upbeat and positive, with your values shining through? Or do your toolbox talks and site inductions sound like an apology?

Where do you get your industry news and opinion from? A single source or a balanced collection of sources? What are your networks saying on LinkedIn and elsewhere? Do you live in an echo chamber of relentless pessimism and shock stories?

If so, change things. Challenge negative bias in the conversations you have. Veer away from sensational headlines, demand or seek out unsung positive stories to balance out the negative ones.

Terrible things happen, and when they do we must learn the lessons. But you know what? On the sad day that person fell from that scaffold, many others didn’t. Why? Because they did things right? Why? Because they felt empowered to do things safely. Why? Because leaders engaged and inspired them in making their jobs better and safer.

Now, isn’t that a story worth telling too?