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How a heart to heart with your boss could save your life

We’ve all played the “what if” game.  What if you were stranded on an island and had to choose one food item to eat for the rest of your life.  I’d like to challenge you to apply the “what if” scenario to safety.  Here’s the question:  “What if you had to pick just one word to describe the key to safety success?” “Safety is………” ?  Some anticipated answers to that question might be, “Safety is personal,” “Safety is teamwork,” or “Safety is absolute.”  WARNING: TOUCHY-FEELY ANSWER AHEAD!  My word to describe the key to safety would be “relationships.”  I’m not describing how to establish or maintain a relationship in this piece but rather the benefits for safety that come through developing relationships in a working capacity.

Consider the construction foreman who gets to know each of his crew members on personal level.  He knows their kids, wives, recreational hobbies, etc.  Over time trust develops as a part of the relationship.  Trust yields conformance when, for instance, it comes to being asked to follow safety rules.  Is a worker more apt to honor safety requests coming from an unfamiliar general manager or the foreman that he knows and who he believes cares about him?

Healthy relationships require effective communication — a hugely underappreciated and underdeveloped skill for most people. Take a worker using a ladder in a very unsafe way.  Absent a relationship, the confrontation with a supervisor might go something like: “Hey you, don’t you know you’re using that ladder the wrong way? Get down from there.”  Where a relationship exists and personal tendencies and behaviors are predictable, the conversation may go something like: “Hey Steve, in the seven years I’ve known you you’ve never used a ladder in a careless way.  Is something bothering you today, something going on at home?”  Rather than jumping to a reprimand, a relationship allows for the underlying cause to be explored.

Related: The safety profession from the inside

Safety is about how people and relationships allow for impactful messages to be delivered.  Take the case of an instructor, a stranger, describing how his co-worker was fatally injured on the job.  Although sad, his message will likely be soon forgotten.  Take that same scenario with someone you know well, and the delivery of a message about the loss of their co-worker, family member or even a neighbor has a greater impact and lasting effect.  Relationships produce emotional connections, which are the basis for personalizing safety and which provide the purpose for practicing safety every day. I’m certain that no one wakes up with the desire of being safe just to please the shareholders in their company.  Rather it is the purpose of self-preservation and the relationships with co-workers, family and friends that drive behavior and critical decision-making.

Sustainable safety is achieved through the expression of passion and compassion for others, which is strengthened through the bonds of relationships.  If you work toward establishing a work environment where people care about each other’s safety, you will inevitably improve the overall success of your safety program.

My answer to the opening question, if I were stranded on an island with just one choice of food…pizza of course!

About the author: Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.

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