Most lists of workplace safety tips focus on the physical: proper posture, the importance of the right safety gear, the need to take regular breaks. But what about workplace safety that relates to communication, not just technology, but workers’ ability to effectively relate to each other?
A National Public Radio story recently relayed how Shell drastically improved worker safety on oil rigs in the 1990s by transforming rig culture with an unorthodox approach: They got workers to be vulnerable with each other by communicating more openly.
Other workplaces have also found that opening up interpersonal communication improves safety for everyone. Hospitals, for instance, have seen patient outcomes improve when nurses feel empowered to correct surgeons during procedures instead of staying quiet because of their rank.
With all of that in mind, let’s look at some workplace safety tips based on the communications learnings from Shell and others.
Encourage Employees to Ask for Help
Before the transformation at Shell, workers on the oil rigs followed an unspoken code never to ask for help or say when they didn’t know something. Afterward, the opening up of communications helped contribute to an 84 percent decline in Shell's accident rate companywide.
"In that same period, the company's level of productivity in terms of numbers of barrels and efficiency and reliability exceeded the industry's previous benchmark,” says Robin Ely, a Harvard business school professor who wrote about the Shell experiment for a Harvard Business Review article headlined “Unmasking Manly Men.”
When workers are encouraged to seek out assistance, they’re less likely to take unnecessary risks and more likely to collaborate in staying safe.
Make Safety More Important than Everything Else, Including Rank
When safety is the most important priority, everything else falls away, including rank or position. If an employee sees someone jeopardizing safety, they should be encouraged – even required – to say something, even if the offender is their boss or someone in leadership. Creating a safe environment to speak up leads to a safe environment overall.
In healthcare, a study called “Silence Kills” has helped raise awareness about health professionals’ unwillingness to call out their colleagues’ mistakes or bad behavior – even when patient safety was being compromised. The study has helped lead to changes at the participating hospitals and industry-wide.
Have the Right Technology and Train Staff to Use it
We’re all committed to having the right equipment that will ensure safety under pressure. Once you’ve invested in the technology, it’s equally important to make sure that staff know how to use and maintain it properly. Accidents caused by user error are some of the most preventable, and a little training will go a long way.
And it’s important to make training an ongoing habit rather than a one-time event. Even seasoned professionals will benefit from refresher courses every now and then.