A Two-Way Street to Safety

In its broadest sense, communication makes it possible for people, processes and systems to work collaboratively and decisively in an effort to realize goals and objectives. The means by which safety policy, protocol and expectations influence workers to become active participants in the safety process can be approached by a top-down leadership approach by encouraging, supporting and developing opportunities and unobstructed channels for bottom-up communication.

The construction work site is made up of many moving parts. Different trades, union and nonunion workers as well as foremen, supervisors and front-line workers operate in close proximity sharing the same goal, that of getting the job done.

For that reason, the necessity and process of safety communication is much like that of moving materials from one end of the construction job site to the other. It is imperative that prior to the commencement of any task there must be a plan, a route and an agreed-upon destination with all parties involved in the process well aware of the necessity to remain flexible, as the environment often dictates the need to re-evaluate and create an alternative route if the path is blocked or obstacles emerge that may undermine the health and safety of the worker.

In the best possible of scenarios, safety communication supports two-way communication, allowing those at a managerial level to offer employees/workers the necessary information regarding any hazards and risks associated with the assigned tasks. Of equal importance is the reality that workers will contribute to and effectively sustain a culture of safety and engage in safety communication in an environment that provides a structure where they feel their concerns, their expertise and their experience are not only valued, but woven into the framework of upper management’s decisions.

A Proactive Approach

Clearly, it takes more than written policy and protocol regarding safety to encourage and sustain a workforce committed not only to getting the job done and getting it done on or before schedule, but doing so in a manner in which safety is held in the highest regard.

In the construction industry, training has unfortunately become somewhat of a buzzword, a sweeping generalization that is not monitored effectively or efficiently by embracing the multitude of ways in which individual workers learn (i.e. visual learner versus auditory learners).  As a result, it is imperative that all training be conducted with a laser focus on responding to gaps in knowledge which to date is a paradigm in our industry, that of a proactive approach that is far more the exception than the rule.

Within the industry, there appears to be an understanding regarding the importance of safety or the “what,” but time and again, the “how” and the “why” become lost in translation. Consequently, those in positions of authority, those responsible for creating, implementing, sustaining and reinforcing safety communication and that of a larger culture of safety must remember that their job is to direct, update, instruct, help, learn, draft, caution, seek help, engender respect, encourage, prompt, question and most importantly never lose sight of the most important goal of communicating safety – keeping the worker safe.

So the question begs, what is actually more important: what we mean to say or the tangible reaction received?  Language is power and words have a profound influence on the outcome of safety communication. Therefore, choosing affirmative words creates a more positive response. For example, “How can I help?” is more effective than asking “What’s the problem?,” and “Let me run through that again” is better than saying “You don’t understand.”

Effective Communication

Working in the construction industry is a hazardous way by which to make a living. The realization that greater hazards exist should be the impetus for putting safety under a microscope and examining it in “real time” in a collaborative effort allowing for the workforce to practice their trades in as safe an environment as possible.

Non-specific communication is not enough as it must be effective and efficient.  As such, it can be approached and implemented as a network providing a foundation upon which a supportive framework can be built; further creating a means by which workers and the larger system can and must react and interact with a sense of purpose, urgency and collaboration. This allows for the critical component of engagement between the worker and management with a clear understanding that his or her cooperation and support is necessary to maintain a positive safety culture.

Creating effective safety communication on a work site may seem overwhelming, therefore it is important to utilize various tools to increase and motivate those who engage in safe behavior. Workers will choose to work safely more often than not when words from those in charge offer a mirror as to the expected behaviors.  The physical presence of those in charge of implementing and reinforcing safe behaviors – i.e. face-to-face interaction – as well as encouraging feedback regarding safe behaviors are all ways in which the industry can mitigate feelings of anxiety that often accompany creating effective safety communication and in turn, a culture of safety.

While simply a primer, safety communication can be improved on the job site by integrating a few simple rules:

  • Define goals clearly in writing, as written rules act as a reference point to questions as they arise.
  • Identify effective avenues of communication with your companny’s upper management.
  • Respond to questions and concerns promptly, respectfully and appropriately.
  • Don’t speak down to a worker but respond using language accessible to the person who has questions.
  • Utilize your listening skills.
  • Respond to questions truthfully, compassionately and should you need clarification ask for it with an authentic desire to gain greater understanding.
  • Offer feedback.
  • Never miss an opportunity to reinforce appropriate/safe behavior.

Clear and constructive safety communication can improve knowledge and understanding that prevents adverse behaviors and enhances safe work practices. Safety communication is a collaborative effort and therefore a “language” that should be spoken without exception on every worksite.

Joshua Estrin is an associate at Sarasota, Fla.-based construction forensic services firm Stephen A. Estrin & Co. Inc., specializing in behavioral safety management support. He is also an adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., teaching social welfare policy and group therapy. He can be reached at joshua@sa-estrin.com.

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