The sliding scale of safety engagement - Tribe Culture Change
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The sliding scale of safety engagement

The sliding scale of safety engagement

scales1-300x225 The sliding scale of safety engagement
A central element of JOMC’s approach to achieving sustained culture change has always been one-to-one behavioural engagement. Referred to by different names: SUSA, Talksafe, One-to-One, Stop & Talk – they all have common elements that make it such an effective approach to conversations about safety.

There is a degree of structure to a conversation; they’re positive, questioning and focussed on behaviour. Where there is safe behaviour they provide an opportunity to recognise and if appropriate, provide some praise. In the case of unsafe behaviour the aim is to try and understand the reasons in order to prevent recurrence.

These are the basic principles that have proved time and again to have a huge impact on safety performance. They result in safety (and other topics) being talked about more often, more positively and more openly.

Yet still, some people struggle to understand how and in which circumstances this style of engagement can be put to use. I’ve heard people say: “SUSA is great in a given situation, but that situation doesn’t always arise”.

My response to this is to recognise that good safety engagement may present itself in many forms and these sit on a sliding scale. In the middle of that scale sits the formal, structured and SUSA-style discussion when someone (often, but not exclusively, a manager) takes time out to visit people at work and asks about the potential for harm and explores the behaviours observed and discussed.

That approach involves lots of questions and active listening, with the most important questions being:

  • What could go wrong
  • How could you get hurt
  • What kind of accident is most likely?


There may be occasions where a degree of formality and structure is required, but perhaps with a larger group, covering broader topics. For example, a team leader briefing a group.

Rather than just tell the group what to do, the team leader might involve group members with questions, asking them what they think about the task and the risks involved. Imagine the impact if the opening gambit was:

“What do you see as the most important outcome of this job? I see it as ensuring that nobody gets hurt! How do you think someone could get injured? What can we do to ensure that doesn’t happen?”

This is a great safety engagement, still following the principles of a SUSA-style discussion.

Moving in the other direction on the scale, a situation might arise when walking through the workplace and you come across someone displaying relatively innocuous yet still unsafe behaviour.

Whilst we would not want to ignore and therefore condone that behaviour it might feel heavy-handed to launch into the full structure of a SUSA-style conversation. If we were to do that it could potentially result in a defensive reaction and less than ideal engagement. It’s also natural for this to feel uncomfortable for the observer of the unsafe behaviour.

A more appropriate approach would be to simply point out the unsafe behaviour, express your concern for the welfare of the individual (and maybe others around) and seek an assurance of a change. In due course this may lead on to further enquiry to try and understand the reason for the shortcut but only where there is some genuine value to be added. It’s a bit pointless to ask someone why they’re talking on the phone and not paying attention when crossing a road!

Most important is to show you care and prompt the person to think about their actions. This still represents good, appropriate, safety engagement.

SUSA, Talksafe, Stop & Talk are all effective tools when used correctly but it’s the overly rigid use of them that will undermine their value, lead to bad-feeling and ultimately result in less engagement.

Let’s not get too wrapped up in the formalities of engagement. There are many opportunities to make a difference and they aren’t all best served by the same approach.

Keep the basic principles at the back of your mind but use them flexibly to deal with each person and each situation in the most appropriate manner. All forms of engagement help us to achieve our ultimate aim of avoiding unnecessary harm.

What’s the most unusual situation you’ve come across that you successfully dealt with by talking to someone?

Nick Wharton
Nick Wharton