Seven Steps for Better Communication Among Safety Professionals

by Cory Moore, CSST, NREMT-P and Troy Horsly, Safety Advisors with Safety Management Group

On a jobsite, it’s pretty easy to tell where one craft begins and another ends. Nobody expects the electricians to run lengths of sewer pipe, and painters aren’t likely to be asked to cut a piece of duct. Each craft’s job has its boundaries, and one craftsperson isn’t likely to venture into another’s area of expertise.

But what happens when the safety manager for the mechanical contractor notices that an electrician isn’t grounding a circuit correctly? Or when the safety supervisor for the sheet metal contractor sees the painter perched on the very top of a too-short folding ladder? Safety professionals are committed to making sure the workers they oversee make it home in one piece, but what about the workers for other crews and companies?

On smaller jobs, it isn’t much of an issue, but on a major construction project or industrial shutdown, there may be as many as 12 to 15 safety professionals working on a site. When crews for three or four contractors are working in the same area, there’s a potential for problems.

1. Know the territory. When you’re one of several safety professionals on a site, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the expectations of your role and how it fits in with your fellow safety pros. If you notice differences between your company’s approach to safety and that of others on the site, either work directly with the other firm’s representative or the supervisor to see if there’s a way you can follow the same procedures. Beyond safety considerations, having different rules can create problems on a site when crews and crafts intermingle and discover that they have to observe rules that others can ignore. By working together, you can ensure that the same standards and rules are being used across the site.

2. Transcend turf. While most safety professionals are cooperative by nature and able to see the bigger picture of helping everyone work safely, there are those who are far more territorial. In fact, they may pay more attention to making sure you don’t cross their boundaries than to ensuring that workers within those boundaries are using safe practices.

If communication between the safety pros is not as clear as it should be, try to build relationships. Sit down over a cup of coffee or lunch and mention your interest in working cooperatively for the benefit of everyone involved. Suggest an opportunity to socialize off-site by sharing a common interest, such as golfing or fishing. The better people get to know one another, the easier working together becomes.

3. Share the load. You probably know your part of the site very well, and that can create complacency in even the most attentive safety pro. So why not take the opportunity to have all the safety staff on the site check areas outside their normal scope? On one site, we brought all the safety professionals together every Thursday and divided them into three groups, each responsible for a walk-through in a specific area. After the walk-throughs, all three groups reconvened and had a working lunch to review the findings. By working together, we were able to identify and address more safety issues.

4. Consider the whole site. Once the group walk-throughs were reviewed, we would bring the findings back to the workers in our area. We would tell them about safety issues in other parts of the site. That way, they would not only learn more about what can go wrong and how to prevent problems, they also clearly saw that safety was a priority in every area and that it impacts every job.

5. Share information freely. Remember that childhood game of “telephone” where messages became more twisted with each telling? The same thing happens on worksites. A minor injury on one part of the site creates claims of amputation by the time it reaches the other side. The best way to overcome rumors and misinformation is to communicate honestly and frequently about what has happened in all areas of the site and on all shifts. If workers know that they can trust you and the other safety professionals to keep them informed, they’ll be less likely to buy into (and spread) crazy rumors.

Never lose sight of the fact that workers may have friends in other crafts. When they hear that someone in a particular craft has been injured, they may worry that it was their friend, and that worry may impact their performance.

6. Act when you have to. Even if you’re on a site where turf is clearly defined and other safety professionals may resent intrusions, you have an ethical responsibility to intervene when there’s an imminent danger. Never be hesitant to step up and correct the situation. Once you do, follow up immediately with the safety professional responsible for that area or the site superintendent. Tell them what happened and what action you took. Reassure them that you weren’t trying to do their jobs, but you wanted to prevent a dangerous situation. And remind them that you’ll never be offended if they address something wrong in an area for which you’re responsible.

That willingness to have other safety people keep an eye on your area can be helpful, because some workers may become lax when they know you’re not around (kind of like the way your kids may start acting up around other people). If that’s happening, you need to know about it.

7. Start at the top. Of course, cooperation among the safety professionals on a site will be the strongest when the owner and the owner’s rep make a significant commitment to safety. If all of the contractors and their safety professionals know that they are expected to cooperate, they won’t be forced to negotiate their own truces and boundaries. Just as important, the workers will see that safety gets more than lip service at the site, so they’ll be more likely to use the correct procedures and equipment.

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