Seven Useful Strategies that Set the Tone for Safety

by Rob Shone, Safety Advisor, Safety Management Group

The craftspeople arrive at the new job site, prepared to start work on their phase of a major project. They’re ready to tackle the challenges of this particular job, but they’re first herded into a room that reminds them of a high school classroom. Here it comes; that dreaded safety orientation they’re forced to endure at the beginning of each project. The presenter will drone on about safety, telling them things they believe they already know. Then he’ll ask if there are any questions (of course, there won’t be) before sending them on their way to work.

It happens that way at far too many projects, and it shouldn’t. The safety orientation session can be an excellent opportunity to set the tone for a project, and to help workers understand both the importance of safety and the role they play in achieving a safe workplace.

It doesn’t happen automatically or by accident. Over the years, we have discovered that a well-organized orientation based on proven strategies is the most effective way to deliver messages to workers who are new to a site. We’ve provided that orientation to workers at sites for a major pharmaceutical company – an owner whose business provides unique safety challenges and strict regulatory requirements. However, the strategies we’ve identified can easily be applied to orientations at any construction or industrial site.

1. Their contributions matter. We begin by helping workers understand the project owner and its mission. Our client is focused on developing and manufacturing medicines that save lives and improve the quality of life for people all over the world. Every project on every one of their sites is part of pursuing that mission. Whether the workers will be building laboratories or remodeling offices, they are contributing to that mission. As safety professionals, we’re also contributing to that mission by ensuring that everyone has a safe workplace and can return home to their families at the end of every shift.

    2. Treat them like people. Every individual in the room want to know that her or she is important, and that his or her opinions and experiences are valuable. The easiest way to do that? Use their names. When someone asks a question during your presentation, ask them to preface it with their names, and then work their names into your response. “Jim, I’m glad you asked that, because it reminded me that eye protection is important on this site.” By doing that, you’ve treated the questioner as a respected peer, rather than as a student.

  1. Encourage their input. The traditional lecture – with the presenter doing all the talking – makes it far too easy for the audience to lose interest and attention. Asking for their input and involvement through the orientation will keep them attentive and provide a subtle reminder that they play an active role in workplace safety. While safety professionals know a lot about safe practices, we’re less knowledgeable about the day-to-day aspects of their crafts.

We often begin orientations by finding out who is in the audience, and then tailoring our questions to their area of concern. For example, if we’re talking to a group of electricians and the subject of fall protection is part of the discussion, we may ask them for examples of when they would have felt safer on a job had proper fall protection been used. Specific issues that involve their work practices will hold their interest better than vague rules. Conducting a give-and-take also validates their own expertise, showing them that we regard them as professionals. (We learn from them, too.)

  1. Tell stories. Rules tend to be boring. Stories are far more interesting. So if you can convey information about a rule through a story, you’ll improve attention and retention. Tell them about something that went wrong on a site, and how the safety procedures helped, or how failing to do the right thing led to injuries or other problems. Stories make things real and memorable.
  1. Share the reasons. It’s one thing to tell a craftsperson that it’s mandatory to use certain type of safety equipment on the site. That’s a rule, and nobody likes rules, even when they’re for our own benefit. Take it to the next step by explaining the reasons behind the rules. “I know that masks aren’t always comfortable, but in this facility, you may encounter fine particulates that can irritate your lungs and throat.”

Remember that most craftspeople have been through many safety orientations, and they may believe they know everything about safety. Explain why your site is different. At our client’s sites, workers encounter Food & Drug Administration regulations that go beyond the familiar OSHA and EPA rules. They may not understand why they need to wear hair and shoe covers, so it’s our responsibility to explain. When someone complains that “I never had to do this before,” help them understand why it’s a priority on this site.

  1. Encourage questions. We always urge people in audiences to ask questions, because everyone (including the presenters) learns from those questions. We remind them that’s always a good idea to ask about things, whether they ask their supervisors, the safety professional on the site, or the owner’s rep. They shouldn’t assume that something is appropriate because they’ve always done it a certain way. On this site, the rules may be different, and asking before acting may save them a lot of grief.
  1. Keep it light. Safety is a serious subject, but that doesn’t mean you need to present it in a stern manner. Warm, friendly comments and gentle humor will put even a wary audience at ease and improve retention of the message you’re presenting. It breaks up the monotony for them – and for the presenter, too.


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