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Effective safety communication is the cornerstone of a healthy safe production culture.

This is particularly important with one-on-one conversations with employees.

Employees who feel listened to and appreciated are more likely to go beyond the call of duty for safety and other organizational efforts.

Effective communicators demonstrate genuine caring, promote psychological safety, actively listen, and provide recognition regularly.

How strong are your safety communication skills?

Find out with our free Safety Communication Quiz:


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams; their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-Suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and The Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru, where we explore topics around operations, leadership and particularly the role that leaders play in driving safety in their business. My name is Eric Michrowski, president and CEO of Propulo. Today on our show, I’m delighted to have once again Dr. Josh Williams. He’s a partner Human Performance and Business Transformation at Propulo, an absolute guru in the safety space. Thank you for being on the show. Josh, thanks. I appreciate it. Dr. Josh has a Ph.D. in psychology from Virginia Tech. He is one of the pioneers in safety culture with over 20 years of experience in the space, with a broad range of clients in industries ranging from aerospace firm military oil and gas, utilities and manufacturing, a really diverse group of organizations. He’s authored a book. He’s coedited a second one. He’s published over 40 different articles and various publications. He’s also a prize winner and national prize winner for the Cambridge Center on Behavioral Safety. And he has presented over a hundred times to some really delighted audiences that were happy to hear his story. So really excited to have you here. We’ve talked on prior shows about how you got into the safety culture space. Is there an element of why you really got into this space that you’d like to share with our listeners?

I kind of touched on it in some earlier ones in grad school, kind of moving from maybe traditional ivory tower to a professor, Scott Geller, who many of you may know really as kind of the fountainhead for the psychology of safety, sort of working with him. And there was a passion there that was contagious. And part of it is just the feeling of fighting the good fight. You know, you’re trying to do the right thing to make organizations better, more pleasant and keep people from getting hurt.

So that’s kind of where the HWI in it is there for me.

I couldn’t agree more. I mean, it’s really empowering to know that you spend most of your day, most of your life making it safer for others, thinking about how other people can come home to their loved ones every day. So, I completely agree with what you’re sharing there today. We’re talking about a really important topic. I know both of us are passionate about is around safety communication. And it’s a topic that a lot of organizations struggle with.

You’ve recently authored a quiz, which is a novel way to start thinking about how am I doing? How do I compare against some of the leaders in this space and what actions do I need to take to make a difference? So, again, on safety communication, if you want to take that frequency, no gimmicks, no nothing that will come out of it other than great insights and ideas go to zero harm leadership, dotcom, zero harm leadership, dotcom.

We’ll be right back with a couple more questions to understand some of the wisdom that Josh can share around safety communication. Thank you. Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru, this is your host, Eric Michrowski. We know how many businesses have been impacted by the current covid-19 Black Swan event. Propulo has invested all its available capacity to create free resources for leaders on how to navigate this crisis. Whether you would like to explore some of our free tools, subscribe to our free biweekly newsletter or seek free advice.

I encourage you to visit covid. Black Swan dot com covid black swan dot com Propulo has committed not to profit from this crisis in any way. It’s our way of giving back to the communities that we serve. Thank you.

Like what we do here, this is your Socials and tell everyone, a lot of leaders come to me and they ask me, what do I do to really get more meaningful, more impactful communication? They worried that they keep putting different messages and nobody’s listening to the message being sent. Josh, any thoughts on the topic of safety communications to start?

Yeah, and we can look at it from an employer to employee. We can look at it from a leader with employees. I think from the leadership side is getting out of this mindset. And I think a lot of a lot of leaders do. But the mindset is it’s not compliance. I mean, we have to have compliance, obviously. But when I if I’m a leader out there on the floor, I should be asking people, how are they doing?

What do they need anything scaring them about the job? It should be, you know, asking questions, trying to get their input and having it more conversational thing. You can still get your point across if there’s an issue that needs to be addressed to address it. But I think from a leadership perspective, one, get out there more in two. When you’re out there, the more conversational asking questions, I think the better off we’re going to be.

I love when you’re talking about get out there, spend more time in front of a team members, more time in the field. One of our other colleagues, Bri, had done some research a long time ago where she really looked at the impact that spending time on the floor had. And how is one of the biggest predictors? Can you tell me a little bit more of that time in field time on the floor? Why is it so important?

I think it sets the tone for everything. I mean, first of all, you know, I think we all have experience where sometimes the decision makers may be perceived as being out of touch with people that are out there on the job doing the job. I’m not trying to cast aspersions at any group, but that us versus them thing is a real issue. It’s a real problem. It’s a morale issue. And if someone’s making decisions that have never been out here and they don’t always make sense, there’s been some goofy policies, frankly, I’ve seen over the years where it just doesn’t make sense and people understand it.

So, I’ll save some stories for another podcast on that. But bottom line is, the more we’re out with folks, everyone has a better understanding of what both sides are doing. It breaks down barriers. And I think people appreciate the fact that their leaders are out there talking to them, working with them and showing respect.

Is there a percentage of time that a leader should be spending in front of their team members? Is there an order of magnitude or is it just make a commitment to do better tomorrow?

That’s a good question. I don’t think there’s a stock answer in terms of percentage. You could say 10x or whatever you’re doing, do it, do a more. But I think that the real challenge is part of it is people want to they just want to have time. And so, I know one of the things that we do, we have a kind of a tool that we use to set aside time for folks to get out there. It’s a scheduling issue in many ways.

So, we work with leaders to kind of figure out what can we do with all these various meetings? Can we combine these can we get rid of that one and carve out space so we at least we have a dedicated time to get out there and see folks that is so important. Too often what I hear is a message where I reduce the ranks of my frontline leaders, yet I’m expecting them to do so much more. And at the end of the day, what gets done is usually just the remaining task and they spend most of it in front of the computer instead of going in front.

So, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying. Start by asking what could be removed, what are some of the low hanging fruits non-value-added tasks that just should be taken out and do that, like as your first major initiative? Any tips for a leader who’s maybe new, who goes on the floor, who’s not sure how to how to start conversations?

Yeah, ask questions. And that’s for everybody. But especially if I’m a new leader. People but people are smart. And if I am not exactly sure, you know, what’s going on there. That’s all right. Strong leaders show vulnerability. It’s smart. It’s a strength. It’s not a weakness. And asking questions, being authentic. If you genuinely care and you have the right intentions, people have good sensors for that. They entered.

They feel it. They understand it. So, I think it’s good for everybody, but particularly new leaders. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a sign of strength to be doing those things.

That’s such an important comment. And I think this is something we should expand on in a future podcast. I know for me as a leader really early on in my career, I think probably six, seven years into it, I was given a task which was to go into business I knew absolutely nothing about, turned that business around, change everything from an operational standpoint. And that’s really where I understood humility from a whole different level because I can solve a single thing.

I didn’t understand what was going on in front of me, and I was forced to listen to Top End to go on the floor, ask my team members to figure out how to solve things, and I had no choice but to listen to what they had to say. Organizations that do this well, are there any tips on are things that you see that are markedly different in those organizations that are really good at this?

I was night and day and trust me, you walk in in the first five minutes, ten minutes, you get a feel for culture. I mean, immediately. You do a site tour, you can tell, and it is it’s a huge difference and that doesn’t mean the you know, the really good organizations. It’s not fairy dust and unicorns and rainbows and people high 5min and hugging. But it’s a noticeable difference when you don’t have that.

When you have people that are disengaged, when you don’t have interactions between folks, you get like I said earlier, you get some really dumb rules and decisions that are being made and you’ve got resentment on both sides. And there is no discussion, we all know from any kind of relationship when the communication goes away, people stop talking, problems come up. So that that communication to me is not just a safety issue. It’s a barometer.

It’s a litmus test, really, for your culture and how well you’re running things. So, if you’ve got those problems or you don’t have people talking to each other, you need to address it right away.

I think that’s a great point. What are the themes I want to double click on? You were talking a little bit in terms of what I call safety participation. So, in terms of how do I engage people to make better decisions, there’s some great work that was done by students, INSEAD professors, and they call it really open leadership or fair process, which was really this concept of I have a problem as a leader. I’m used to solving that problem.

But instead of trying to solve it, I’m going to go and involve my team members to come up with solutions. And it doesn’t mean I’m creating democracy. It doesn’t mean that I’m allowing everybody to do whatever they want. But just asking for input. In the end of the day, as a leader, I’m going to make the choice, but I’m going to explain that choice. And they’ve done some huge correlations between that approach and leadership and success in general in terms of that business, that it maybe took more time in the answer to get to a solution, but the end outcome was so much better.

Any thoughts around that concept of involving team members in driving safety?

Ford So quick example. I was working for a steel mill in the northern part of the U.S. years ago, and they had a problem with logout. Tagert And as you all know, if you’re not locking out equipment, particularly in a steel mill, you can get hurt or killed in a hurry. And so, the plant manager was like, look, if we see somebody that’s not locked out, they call it a lockout, tag out, try out there.

Anyway, if we don’t see locked out, you’re gone. And his thinking was, look, we take this seriously and if you’re not following along, you’re out of here. And the safety manager or the safety director was smart. He’s like, let’s hold on, let’s go talk to people. And they actually went out. They got engineers; they’ve got some supervisors. They got some employees out there actually operating the equipment, started talking to him.

The problem was it was so complicated, locking out the equipment. And by the way, they had almost the worst production pressure I can remember. I mean, it was brutal. So, you couple that with really complicated procedures that take forever to do. It’s not surprising sometimes people took shortcuts. So bottom line is employees with the help of some other folks came up with a way to energize the equipment. And half the time, half the steps, they wrote it down.

Really simple. I could understand it, you know, hit the button after you hit the button, do this. The problem went away immediately. It was not an enforcement issue. It was a communication issue. And by talking to people, people are, again, are smart and they are going to come up with good solutions if you let them.

That’s great. So, this time I’m going to say don’t hit the button. Keep listening on. We’re going to talk more about safety communication in just a second. But in the interim, if you have a couple of minutes, go to zero harm leadership, dotcom zero harm leadership dot com to do joshes safety communication, self-assessment to see how you stack up and what actions you can take to make a meaningful difference. We’ll be right back. Here we go again with some more great insights and conversations with Dr Josh Williams here on The Safety Guru talking about safety communication.

So, I want to dial in to another topic, which is peer-to-peer communications. So, to employees, how they communicate with each other. Tell me more of your thoughts on this.

You know, it’s a funny thing. When I first started doing this years ago, when I was younger and skinnier, I was doing a training in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And I am nervous. I’ve got all my notes. I’ve got them in order. I’ve prepared, I’ve practiced, but I am nervous. And about 30 minutes in, I’m saying something. I don’t know what I was talking about, but this guy stood up in this auditorium and said, I have underwear older than you.

Who are you to tell me whatever? And I was like, I was not prepared for that. My comment was, that’s a whole other problem. You got to deal with that first. But it’s a real serious mindset. Don’t tell me what to do. There was a famous country song years ago, if you mind your own business, you won’t be mine and mine. And I think sometimes we take that too far. We take it as disrespect.

Someone says something to me, you’re disrespecting me. I’ve been here thirty years. You’ve been here three. Who are you to tell me how to do my job? I’m maintenance your operations you don’t want. Do we have these barriers where we just bristle at the thought of someone trying to help us? So, I think it’s really important to start trying to break that down when you start thinking about people getting seriously hurt or injured on the job. Some you know, some of the listeners, Charlie Morecroft, you know, good guy and a lot of people know was burnt almost on his entire body, almost died and talks about that story.

Brad Gardner, another individual, lost an arm in a potato factory, felt the heat. He was pulled into an auger. He didn’t block it out first. All of a sudden, he’s being pulled in that machine. I hate to be gruesome, but he had a decision to yank himself out, left his arm in the equipment. And sadly, I’ve got a ton of those stories just from doing this for a while. If someone had spoken up, if someone had said, hey, man, I don’t feel right.

If you don’t lock us out, you can get hurt. Or I was doing the same thing, tore my shoulder. I don’t see it happen to you. If we’re communicating these things, we’re keeping people from getting hurt. We’ve got to start changing that mindset of this isn’t disrespect. This is simply just caring. I don’t I don’t see it happen to you and we need to work on that.

That reminds me of a story. When I was early on my first leadership role, I remember that I provided some coaching to somebody from a cell on a safety standpoint. And she turned around and she started screaming at me and putting her finger in my face very close to my nose and saying, I could be your grandma. So, it was it’s not always easy when you have to deal with that. So, any closing thoughts around safety communication as we close off our show for today?

Yeah, I mean, and it’s one of those things, too. I think, frankly, training and we incorporate in some of the stuff that we do. But you have to practice it. It’s a skill we don’t all grow up being communications experts. You know, I got into this job because I’m really good at whatever I do. And so, I think we have to work on it. And so, a couple of quick hitter tips. First is asking questions.

You know, the first thing, if you come up and I’m working on something, I maybe I’m working on turbine engine. I’ve been doing this for hours. I don’t have the equipment I need. I’m in a confined, you know, kind of a difficult space. And you come up, start telling me what I need to be doing right or wrong. It’s going to be a problem. You come up and ask me, how are you doing?

Anything I can do to help? What do you need? Asking questions kind of breaks down people’s barriers because now we’re having a conversation. So, I think step one would be asking questions. Of course, showing respect at all times is an obvious one and praising the good stuff to you. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t need a group hug for where am I hearing protection. But if, you know, if I’m going out of my way helping out a newer employee, I’m cleaning up a spill after my shift.

You know, a little tip of the cap now and again. It’s not a bad thing either. I think the last one, too. I mean, this may not be a great one to end on, but we’ve got to watch our language, you know, must never, always sometimes. You know, you mentioned that a Ph.D. in psychology, my wife won’t mind me saying this, I hope, but it did not prepare me for the first couple months of marriage.

And part of the funny part of it was we would get an argument and I didn’t understand why. And sometimes I would say words that elicited it like must never, always. And I finally learned, okay, don’t be a dummy. You know, quit doing that and also say, yes, I know you’re right. But just think about that. In fact, this will be a homework assignment for the listeners. This will be a test in social psychology.

Either use must never or always. As soon as you go home tonight, as soon as you see the person that you live with, if you live with somebody, tell them they never do something just for fun. Hi, honey. You never do this or, you know, you always complain about that and then see what happens. And if they start yelling at you, you could say, well, listen to that dang podcast. And the guy said to try it and he was right.

We just got to be careful and mindful sometimes because I think unintentionally, we by accident may send the wrong message, because, again, keep in mind, we’re all a little defensive. Sometimes when it is about our job, we take pride in what we do and it gets really easy for people to get defensive. So, I think the last point, and I don’t want to be soapbox here. I think the last point, though, we need to consider is talking to people are caring.

You’re looking out for people. It’s not about telling them what to do. And I think change in that mindset goes a long way to preventing those serious injuries and fatalities.

Thank you so much for those closing thoughts. Again, if you have a couple of minutes, go to zero harm leadership, dotcom, do Joshes quick, which will give you some meaningful insights in terms of what you need to do next. And this was, again, Dr. Josh William on The Safety Guru. Thank you so much. And we’ll talk again soon. Thank you.

Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-Suite radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team—fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru Eric Michrowski.

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For more than 20 years, Josh has partnered with clients around the world to deliver customized, sustainable solutions to improve safety culture and prevent SIFs. Dr. Williams earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Virginia Tech and is a behavioral safety, human performance, and safety culture improvement expert.

Josh is the author of Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention and co-editor of Keys to Behavior Based Safety. He has published more than 50 book chapters, government reports, white papers, blogs and articles in leading journals. Josh has also delivered hundreds of presentations at leading national conferences and is a highly regarded public speaker. He received the Cambridge Center National First Prize for his research on behavioral safety feedback.

A sample of Josh’s recent projects include delivering a series of motivational presentations, conducting comprehensive strategic planning sessions, and managing safety culture assessments and improvement activities.

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