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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Conversation starters

PETER BATEMAN reports on an award-winning initiative which really got people talking about health and safety.

Your workmate isn’t wearing gloves and you know he should when he does that task. You know you should say something to him. He could lose a finger. But it’s embarrassing. So you say nothing and hope he remembers to wear them next time.

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. Just how do you tell a mate he’s not doing the right thing, without it all getting a bit awkward? After all, New Zealand culture isn’t particularly comfortable with the kind of assertive, in-your-face behaviour which takes more self-confidence than many of us possess.

It’s an issue which Pacific Steel decided to tackle after rolling mill manager Brent Coutts noticed people taking unsafe shortcuts, or not wearing PPE (or not wearing it correctly), and often doing so in front of others. Why, he wondered, did the other person usually not say anything to gently steer their workmate onto a safer track?

While he was pondering this question the “Ghost Chips” TV commercial was getting people talking at work. In the ad, the young man’s dilemma was whether to speak up to prevent his friend driving drunk, and if he did speak, how would he do it in a way which would embarrass no one?

At the company’s team briefings people were challenged to put themselves in this very situation: what would they say to someone about to drive drunk? Or, more generally, to someone about to drive unsafely? From there it was a small leap to this question: what would they say to someone working unsafely?

The result – courtesy general manager Ian Jones – was an idea for a competition to find the answer. The idea turned out so well it won the engagement category at this year’s NZ Workplace Health and Safety Awards. Branded “Speak up on Safety”, the competition invited staff to submit a phrase which could be said to someone working unsafely. To boost participation, every person who submitted an entry received a T-shirt with the Ghost Chips catchphrase printed on it: “I’ve been internalising a really complicated situation in my head”.

This giveaway really raised the profile of the campaign. People wanted one and were engaged to enter the competition.

Result? More than 300 entries. They came in the form of phrases and slogans. Some people even designed posters or made brief videos. This was certainly worker participation in health and safety. The best entries – 24 of them – received prizes, and the six phrases judged to be the best were made into T-shirts. Everyone on site received a T-shirt featuring their favourite phrase, the idea being that everyone now had an ice-breaker phrase to make initiating those awkward conversations just that bit easier.

Coutts says the T-shirts have changed the look of Pacific Steel’s site, as it is now acceptable to wear a black T-shirt to work with a safety slogan on it. It’s not uncommon, he says, to see Ian Jones wearing his T-shirt too.

“It’s in our language. ‘Speak up’ is a term we use all the time now. There is still work to do, but the campaign has moved our culture along.”

He says the shirts have reduced the barriers for safety conversations by providing phrases everyone is familiar with, so approaching other people has become easier.

“I think as Kiwis we avoid conflict and sometimes take what appears to be the easier path, and turn a blind eye. It can be hard to approach someone and tell them they are doing something wrong.”

Now, if someone walks up to a colleague and says “If that’s safe practice I’ll hug a cactus”, the other person straight away gets that it means “Hey, that doesn’t look safe to me”.

It’s not offensive or abrupt, says Coutts, and it gets more people talking about safety. To help reinforce these six key messages posters have been put up featuring employees and their phrases, and leaders wear their T-shirts and repeat the language at team briefings.

Fanie Nel, compliance and training manager, says Speaking Up on Safety has also helped with the company’s safety observations programme, as it has equipped both observers and participants with more ways of having safety conversations.

The focus of the observations – more accurately called safety conversations – is to create opportunities to talk about people’s work, in a positive way.

“When we started safety observations some guys would run for cover. Even for the guys doing the observations it’s a challenge to break the ice initially. Speaking Up on Safety has given the guys much better tools.”

The company’s TRIFR rate has fallen dramatically in the last couple of years, and the Speaking Up on Safety campaign – which has now finished – must share some of the credit. But both Nel and Coutts are quick to point out that it is only part of an ongoing series of interventions – the next campaign is called Safety Basics – which reinforce each other.

Of course, encouraging people to speak up is one thing. But as Coutts points out, the other half of the equation is having people who are prepared to listen.

“I’m heartened,” he says. “The campaign is over but it’s still something we refer to all the time. It’s had stickability. When people start reflecting the language back at us, you know you’re getting traction.”


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