Winning of Hearts & Minds
I was on a construction project years back and as I made my way through the unit during a formal safety audit, I began to recognize a pattern. As I walked through a particular area, occupied by a particular contractor group, I realized that all work would cease even before we were in view. I started to keep track and after a few more passes, saw that there was a foreman that would signal to his employees that members of the safety team were approaching. This was usually accomplished by some sort of whistle or chirp. It reminded me of a prison movie I had seen when I was a kid (Screw’s comin!). Once the message was received, his work crew would put down their tools and step away from what they were doing. I won’t lie, my initial reaction was anger. Well, maybe shock THEN anger. Before reacting, I was able to collect myself. I approached the foreman with a smile and an extended hand as I introduced myself.
The foreman was surprisingly friendly. There was no animosity. He knew who I was from site orientation and the numerous safety meetings I had conducted over the life of the project. I made it more personal this time. I asked his name and how long he had been at his craft. We made small talk and joked briefly. Then came the real question. “Why is it every time either myself or a member of the safety team comes into your work area you signal your employees to stop working?” I got right to the point. Without any though and with a smile on his face he responded, “because I don’t want my guys or me to get fired”. His blunt yet honest response consternated me. I assume my blank stare begged for clarification because he took my silence as excuse to continue. “That’s what the safety man does. You mess up, he gets you fired”. There it was… Because that’s what the safety man does… Ouch.
Once again, within the span of a few short minutes, my emotions turned immediately to anger. Once again, I was able to suppress the urge to react and composed myself. I will try to relay as best I can to you my response. I have trouble remembering word for word exactly what I said. Over the years it has evolved and grown but the basic idea remains the same to this day. Here goes:
First and foremost, if you are directing your employees to stop work when a safety professional is in the area, you are not helping them. Quite the opposite in fact. You are setting them up for failure. Would you ask your employee to hammer nails and then take away their hammer? No. By not allowing my colleagues and me the ability to observe you and your employees as you work, to view your practices and habits, you are essentially asking your employees to hammer nails with their forehead. The reason we observe work habits and procedures is find deficiencies, not to escort workers to the gate but to correct them to avoid injury! Yes, it’s that simple! The reason I became a safety profession was due to my time as an emergency medical technician. So many times as I was treating a patient I would think, “this could have easily been avoided”. That turned from wishful thinking to, “if not me, then who?” By allowing my colleagues and me the ability to observe and correct, you are handing your employees another resource. What better way to operate than knowing there is someone behind you that is watching out for your safety. In fact, that is their sole function! The best way to protect your employees is to allow us to do our job. The “safety man” or… the Safety Professional does not fire people. In my years of providing this service, I have never fired someone over an unsafe act. I will educate. I will provide opportunity for the employee to learn and become more aware. THAT is what the safety professional does.
I know, unfurl the flag behind me and cue the flute music, right? It may sound canned now but it is important to know that at the time, I was realizing everything I was saying as I was saying it. It dawned on me that the conversation was just as important to me as it was to the foreman. This conversation has become a staple for me in changing the minds of workers and supervisors who may have a negative view of people in our beloved profession. I’ve found it effective with even the most staunch safety opponent (yes, they do exist). It satisfies my soul every time I get to see the proverbial light bulb come on in someones mind because the seeds of safety culture have been planted… and that is how it begins, one person at a time.
Oh… and from that day forward, that same foreman met me at the barricade of his work area and walked me through every time after. He would explain what his employees were doing, provide permits and JSA’s without me even asking. He gave the hammer back to his employees.
Be safe out there.