5 horrible flaws in workplace safety speeches

Safety lapses can damage your organization in many ways. First and foremost, of course, you don’t want anyone injured on the job. So avoid these pitfalls when urging staff to put safety first.

We’ve all experienced being at a company speech and feeling our anger growing as the company leader waffled on about a whole lot of stuff we knew wasn’t entirely accurate and wasn’t based in any achievable reality.

Usually these speeches were written with a deluded sense of self and what was really happening.

I recently sat squirming during a seminar while listening to absolute nonsense about a so-called safety study based on a flawed research methodology with a small sample of 12 companies. The principal consultant waxed lyrical about the findings, which were all dodgy, as the sample size was too small to make any assumptions. Yet it was enough for a whole range of safety guidelines to be doled out to companies, while my ex-market-research brain was writhing in agony.

But I digress; it’s not just companies trying to sell safety information that are at fault. It’s also companies talking about their own safety stuff.

Here are five things that make workers uncomfortable when they’re listening to a safety speech:

1. No personal connection. We all know this one. The company CEO waltzes into town from his or her interstate or international office and tells us what to do about safety. Yet the speech shows little understanding about your particular site and no real desire on his or her part to find out. The solution is that all company leaders must talk individually and establish a personal connection with workers. If that’s not possible, then they need to talk with supervisors before the meeting to gain specifics about that site and get supervisors’ input as to what ought to be said.

2. No real safety plan. Though meaning well, a lot of leaders like to say that safety needs to improve and provide such a vague outline of what that entails that no one knows where to start nor what to do. There’s also no follow-up; instead they offer general metrics that are either too easy to improve or too hard without proper action steps. For staff to believe any safety speech, it needs to be followed with clear, achievable actions; then the leader must give regular updates on progress.

3. No real concern for employees. It is glaring when the safety speech omits specific information about a particular location. It’s also obvious when the leader says that safety is important, but everyone knows the safety budget has been cut and that you can’t get access to safety gloves or proper equipment maintenance. This one is a real doozy for contributing to poor morale and a declining safety record.

4. Stats that skew the big picture. Statistics are funny. Just because you did well with safety last quarter, that doesn’t mean you can assume you’re doing well with safety now. Most safety stats are out of date or measure the wrong things, giving people a false sense of security. A lot of safety statistics suck—and I’m not just talking about those that are largely made up, which some safety consultants like to do.

When we do well, we’re likely to believe that our staff, our safety equipment, and our safety procedures are why our staff has a good safety record. Psychologists call this fundamental attribution errors.

Another element that can cause problems is overconfidence bias. This is the belief that everything is just fine and nothing has to change.

The Harvard Business Review article Why Leaders Don’t Learn From Success (April 2011) reported that the downfall of many companies is the failure to ask why syndrome. This is the tendency not to investigate the causes of good performance. Senior teams no longer ask tough questions that enable understanding of why safety is going well and, therefore, what they should keep doing.

Companies too often believe that their safety record is due to their excellent managerial skills, yet that success might well have come through sheer good luck. Success makes us believe that we are better decision makers than we actually are.

Safety stats should be used as a guide that things are OK, but they should not suggest that no more improvements can be made.

5. Just talking. It’s a given that leaders need good presentation skills to engage the audience, but even those who have them might believe that their mere presence is enough. Unless they’re one of the chosen few doing a TED talk, it’s not. Great speeches need engaging visuals or video content to help people remember and understand information. Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO was a great speaker, but he also used visuals phenomenally well to tell his story and help people understand information.

Workers want to know that they can trust senior leaders to make safety a priority. It has to be more than just lip service; people always see through insincere and inauthentic speeches.

A great safety speech lets people know why safety is important and why they, the employees, are important. It’s not about having the leader take center stage and show off the latest statistics or provide a safety plan so flawed that it will never work.

When you boil it down, an awe-inspiring safety speech signals to workers their leader’s level of compassionate leadership and commitment. If they can trust their leader, believe the information presented, and feel that a given plan is achievable, then mountains can be moved.

What would you change about safety speeches?

Marie-Claire Ross is the director at Digicast Productions. To learn more about improving your safety communication, download a free report, “8 Steps to Writing the Workplace Safety Speech,” at http://www.digicast.com.au/safety-speech. A version of this article first appeared on Digicast.

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