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Phil La Duke of Rockford Greene International explains why the first step in improving your safety talk program is to end it. That’s right. Or, at the very least, restructure it to the point where it is unrecognizable as having roots in what you are currently doing. Here’s how and why.

Posted: December 1, 2010


All over the world the same scenario plays out: a worker is injured, a likely cause is determined, the safety professional is asked to put together a safety talk, and a supervisor may or may not do a quality job delivering a brief speech to the team. But far too often, the execution of a safety talk is a lackluster, half-hearted, non-event. The supervisor doesn’t see it as important because, for the most part, it’s just common sense. The team has heard it before and is apathetic at best; antagonistic at worst.

But why? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

A principle problem with safety talks is that they tend to be reactionary and external to our safety strategy. As organizations seek to be more and more proactive, safety talks remain a reactive and ineffectual response to one contributor. And, to exacerbate the situation, in many instances the “talk” consists of a supervisor passing the script around and having the team members read it . . . and while some do, many others do not. The entire exercise is a pointless waste of time.

Another issue I have with safety talks is that they perpetuate the idea that safety is somehow removed from our business systems. Far from hardwiring safety within our business systems, safety talks remind us that there are inconvenient little impediments to our job that the safety department wants us to address in addition to our work.

I should be clear here that not every organization struggles with the effectiveness of their safety talks. Many have proactive, year-long schedules of safety talk topics. Engaged teams talk about safety issues and generally raise the awareness of a particular safety item, but even these organizations need to ask themselves whether or not their safety talks could be significantly improved.

The first step in improving your safety talk program is to end it, or, at the very least, restructure it to the point where it is unrecognizable as having roots in what you are currently doing. Safety talks must stop being safety speeches or safety lectures and instead become dialogs about the things that put your process at risk — and not just the things that put your workers at risk of being injured.

Consider, for example, a daily pre-shift meeting where the team discusses unusual circumstances that they will face in the work for the day ahead. In law enforcement and security they call these meetings “roll calls”, in manufacturing these meetings are called “huddle meetings”, but whatever the sessions are called, the intent is the same: to identify the process variation that jeopardizes the optimum performance of the tasks required.

By focusing holistically on all of the unusual things that can disrupt the intended activities — not just the things that can cause injuries — safety can gradually be hardwired into the jobs so that the culture will come to see safety as an intrinsic component of the organization’s success — and one that is not subject to compromise. In a day when safety professionals continue to struggle to improve their organization’s safety cultures, broadening the focus and sharpening the effectiveness of safety talks can be an important first step.

Having a dialog about the potential process failures is important, but unless the person initiating the dialog is very careful, the talk can quickly degrade into a lecture about how people ought to be more careful. Those who initiate pre-shift dialog must be mindful that the intent of such activities is as much to gather information as it is to disseminate it

So instead of having a supervisor read a script designed to warn workers of a hazard, the focus should be on engaging the workers. A pre-shift dialog might sound something like this:

Leader: Good morning everyone, let’s take a look at what we have in store for us today. For starters, our standard production number is twenty, but we have four special orders that we need to work into our shift. We will also have a customer visit today and they will be in our area at about 11:30 a.m. So what are the challenges we’re likely to face making today’s goals?

Team Member 1: Well, at 11:30 we are scheduled to take our lunch break, so that shouldn’t effect us in any way.

Team Member 2: Yes, but if it’s possible maybe it would be smart to move the time? I’m just thinking that the customers might want to see us working. I know that having visitors in the area means we have to be extra alert, but I think it’s worth it.

Leader: I think that’s a great suggestion, but I don’t know how full their schedule is. I’ll check it out.

Team Member 3: We also need to consider that they may have a particular process that they want to see . . . it’s not necessarily that they don’t care what we do here, but they may have other priorities.

Team Member 1: And we need to remember that just because they are scheduled to be here at 11:30, they may turn out to be early or late. And if they are expecting production to be down, they may not wear the appropriate PPE. We should have some on hand just in case.

This example may seem implausible to some, but I have seen actual meetings very much like this on a regular basis. The focus is on the process and protecting both the people from the process and vice versa. Notice that the tone of the discussion centers on changes and what that means to the process. Since the process is ostensibly designed so that no one gets hurt, even the smallest changes to the process can heighten the risk of disrupting operations, mistakes, defects, and injuries. Discussing safety in the context in which the work is performed is far more effective than reading a sheet about blood-borne pathogens.

The biggest factor in whether or not safety talks/pre-shift dialogs improve is how well prepared the people are who will initiate them. Supervisors and team leaders should be trained in active listening. The safety professionals should coach these individuals in how to draw individuals into a conversation by talking to them rather than at them. Ideally, the safety professional will demonstrate the correct way to have a dialog about safety in the larger operational context and will model this behavior in his or her everyday work.

Safety talks shouldn’t be discontinued, but they do need to be dramatically redesigned so that they are a part of a larger conversation about keeping the organization running smoothly. After all, what organization can accurately claim that it is efficiently operating and successful at anything when it injures its workers in the pursuit of its goals?

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