Some things to think about if you’re a company safety advocate!
By Steve Martin, Managing Director of Cope and Xmo Strata
All of us who are passionate about safety-in-the-workplace have experienced situations in which safety messages are resisted.
Something is too much trouble, too expensive, too time-consuming. Safety protocols are for snowflakes and bureaucrats. In the real world we can ignore them. It’s something you have to say, but no one actually does it. Or yes, I know all that, but it has to be done fast so on this occasion can you just ignore it?
But it’s actually about preventing death and injury, and reducing corporate risk and liability, so why on earth do some people reject a safety culture?
Understanding why, and tailoring your messages accordingly, may help to make your messages bite deeper and have greater effect. So as someone who’s experienced all this, here are my observations. In each case, I outline the issue – and a method of dealing with it in bold, in the last paragraph.
If you have other thoughts not listed here, please share them!
Why reject a safety culture?
1. Many messages are repetitive, unimaginative, tedious, and lacking in creativity.
The fact that you’re an expert on safety doesn’t make you a writer, presenter, teacher, or guru. Our brains filter repetitive messages, couched in unoriginal me-too language;
“I know that, so I don’t need to occupy processing time on it”.
For the record, AI-generated safety-related articles ALL seem to come into this category (dull as ditchwater and unoriginal).
If our brains didn’t filter, we’d be overwhelmed. The average commuter is exposed to thousands of advertising messages every time they travel to work (billboards, traffic signs, shops, news media; everything from vehicles and clothing to food. There’s even branding on mundane items like elevators, train carriages, shopping bags and manhole covers
Everything is branded, marketing is shouty, every company in the world wants your attention. So, you filter, and one filter is “nope, I’ve already heard that”.
If you can present safety messages with originality, humour, or creativity, they may meet less resistance.
2. Generalised messages seem irrelevant.
Specific messages about particular industries are more effective for those working in that industry. In (for example) our industry, we can do that to some extent … but safety campaigners working across sectors would struggle to do so cost-effectively because it addresses so many different sectors.
To avoid this, make safety messages specific and be careful only to target the people directly affected by the risk you are addressing. Tell real-life stories of named and fully identified people wherever possible (but make sure you have their permission beforehand).
3. We don’t want to be controlled or micro-managed – and so many safety messages come across as patronising or obvious.
As a species, we quite often organise ourselves under dictatorships, rather than democracies, and we join uniformed services, companies, clubs, or societies in which rules and discipline are imposed to varying extents. But (paradoxically) we are wedded to concepts of liberty and individualism, and messages urging us to be safe by engaging in super-careful behaviour conflict with that.
Pilots who fly fast aircraft take inherent risks, yet abide by more safety protocols than most of us; and do so willingly because these things aren’t presented as restrictive, they’re presented as a means of accessing an activity which they love.
4. We’re programmed to love risk – so that the human race can make progress.
We like motorsport and motorbikes. We have extramarital affairs, even when we don’t want to divorce our spouses. We’re glued to movies about alien invasions, warfare, spying, gangsters, and violent, dystopian futures. We go parachuting, skiing and hand gliding for fun. We play with paint guns and go to war on computer games. We climb mountains, and explore space and the deep ocean.
And if we don’t do these things ourselves, we get a second-hand thrill by watching on TV as others do them. We do all sorts of risky things, measuring the risk against the reward (like starting companies on borrowed money and maxing out on mortgages on properties we can’t really afford).
We don’t want to eliminate risk, because without it, life wouldn’t be as interesting. It’s a statement of the obvious that risk can’t be eliminated and some safety messaging seems to imply that this is the intent; people will simply reject messaging that they see as hopelessly unrealistic.
Pragmatic safety messages about identifying risk and mitigating it, so that risks can be managed, will face lower rejection levels.
5. We live in a world of nuclear weapons. There are (currently) two major wars in progress, in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza, and multiple smaller conflicts, and we get real-time 24-hour news broadcasts about them. We know more about traffic accidents, earthquakes in places far away, famine, organised crime, extremist politics, tragic health outcomes and life-threatening conditions than any previous generation.
We have a climate crisis and terrifying weather extremes. All these things are thrown at us, in detail, with video, and are then analysed in detail by panels of TV talking heads and social media warriors. Set against these global threats, the parochial risks associated with workplace accidents may seem less relevant.
Safety messages which play less on fear, and more on the satisfaction from a professional job, done really well, to the best standards, by the best people, may be more effective (presenting good safety protocols as a sign of a true professional).
6. This article is aimed at a tiny percentage of people; safety conscious leaders who are literate and questioning. Most safety messages are aimed at ‘ordinary Joes and Jennies’ going about their business, trade or profession. Busy, hassled, distracted people won’t read complex messages (unless they have high relevance). Some may not even be that literate, even if they are at the top of their particular game.
The best safety messages are simple and short (but very, very hard to do well).
7. Cognitive dissonance – which means that the message conflicts with peoples’ existing beliefs and life experience.
People tend to consume the media they already agree with. Trump supporters are less likely to watch CNN (even though it’s trying to report Conservative politics more comprehensively).
If you give people a message which conflicts with some deeply held personal belief, they’re likely to dismiss it. Whatever we like to think, we’re actually not open-minded. The industrial world is becoming more safety aware and some who’ve been at work for a decade or more have inculcated values, traditional ways or working, and beliefs, which are challenged by “new” attitudes to safety.
Careful crafting of safety messages so that they knowingly acknowledge conflicts, and address them with diplomacy, or so that they are presented as ‘additional to’ rather than ‘contrary to’ existing methods of work, can help to alleviate this intuitive obstacle.
Here’s a summary:
- Tailor your messages to the specific concerns or your target audience. Generalised messages can sound patronising, irrelevant and tedious.
- Make your messages relatable. Tell real-life ‘people like us’ stories wherever possible. If you can (and only ever with their consent) use names and full identification (job, region, age group etc). “My pal George” stories abound on social media and are usually (rightly) dismissed as bogus.
- Safety messages are more powerful if they are framed as mandates which empower individuals rather than instructions which restrict freedom. Corporations will find this difficult – they like to issue instructions which can later be used to indemnify them if things go wrong. But clever, skilled communicators can merge these requirements.
- Safety messages are more effective if they balance fear-based content with positive reinforcement, highlighting the benefits of safety protocols and framing them in a positive narrative.
- Be clear, concise, and keep it simple (this isn’t easy).
- Use common ground with the target audience whenever possible. Understand, and avoid conflicting with, existing values and beliefs.