We need a new approach to safety education

Good listener, communicator, empathetic, ‘psychologist’, compassionate, approachable, motivation of self and others, consistency, team builder, leadership and resilience. No, not the job description of a social worker or primary school teacher. But answers to the question ‘What makes a good supervisor/site manager?’, asked of Alstom field service engineers at their annual conference, as part of research into safety culture Beehive conducted with Bangor University.

The answers were a surprise, but were consistent with the answers from fitters and technicians when they were asked the same question out on site. It wasn’t that domain knowledge, role experience or commercial awareness counted for nothing. It was that these were not what differentiated an indifferent or bad supervisor/site manager from a good one. It was the ‘soft’ skills that made the difference.

So what? you may ask. Well, pointing to a supervisor who had those skills, a site manager interviewed said, ‘If I had ten of him my life would be so much easier.’ That’s because misunderstandings, duplications, omissions, conflicts, errors – things that are often caused by poor communication and relationships – are all things that divert time and energy away from productivity. Having people who can build good relationships reduces the chances of these things.

That’s because interpersonal skills, and the stronger and more positive relationships that they build, are the oil that makes every function of an organisation run more smoothly. 

But it does matter, it matters to safety. Shunichi Tanaka, head of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority commented when operatives at Fukushima were sprayed with contaminated water in 2014, “Mistakes are often linked to morale. People don’t usually make silly careless mistakes when they’re motivated and work in a positive environment.” Dr James Reason states that “A pretty good safety management system with 100% buy-in is better than a perfect system with 0% commitment’.  Morale, motivation, positive environment, buy-in – all created through ‘soft’ skills, all playing a vital role in error avoidance, even making up for imperfections in the system. A key question is, however, does safety education reflect this?

I’d suggest not, and in two ways. One is that the focus is still on ‘hard’ skills, a reflection perhaps of a prevailing attitude that health and safety is only about rules and regulations, procedure, compliance, restriction, hard measures and absence of negatives. But health and safety has a profoundly human focus and if organisations want to get beyond where rules and regulations, process and procedure will take them they need to change their perception of what constitutes safety training to include personal development and those all important ‘soft’ skills.

The other is that the training methods used in safety education can lack imagination.  An organisation’s safety culture is created in the training room as much as anywhere else. If people groan at the thought of safety training that association is likely to pervade people’s attitude to safety out on site. If we want people to be interested in safety, to see it as engaging and relevant to their role, to be proactive about it, then safety education has to be interesting, engaging, relevant, and active too. Empathy isn’t learned through PowerPoint.

We may assume that people already have the interpersonal and communication skills they need to work safely out on site, or that they will learn them on the job. A look at the prevalence of communication issues as a root cause or contributory factor in event reports suggests that this confidence is misplaced. As a participant at our recent safety culture seminar asked, ‘Which of us here has ever been taught how to have a proper conversation?’.  Safety education needs a rethink and refocus.

Beehive is running a safety culture seminar in partnership with the Brathay Trust in Ambleside, Cumbria on March 29th 2019. The event is free though places are limited. Bed, dinner and breakfast are available for the night of 28th March at Brathay on the edge of Lake Windermere. For more details or to book a place please contact Sara on sara@beecld.co.uk or Erja Nikander on 01492 550 960 or erja.nikander@brathay.org.

Author: bsafebuzz

Sara Lodge is co-director, along with Mark Sykes, of Beehive Coaching and Leadership Development Ltd and b.SAFE Safety Culture, an organisational development consultancy specialising in behaviour change and safety culture.

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