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"Go out there and catch somebody doing something right, then say thank you!"


Image of two construction workers shaking hands 


Regardless of where an organisation's health and safety culture sits in space and time, whether it is a mature and positive culture, or one being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, nobody can deny that behavioural safety programmes have their place.


I'm fortunate enough to be in a job role where I have the opportunity to positively influence people's behaviours and attitudes just by the power of a conversation. I'm no expert, but I thought I'd share some of my own experiences and tips on having a positive and effective behavioural based conversation. 


Image of leave your comfort zone

My industry sector is manufacturing, heavy engineering, so I've based these tips on that environment. The amazing thing about these conversations is that they can be applied at work, home, shops, with kids, in the street, on holiday etc. The only limitations are our own personal limitations which are typically a lack of confidence, stepping outside our comfort zone and / or choosing not to get involved for whatever reason. 


Here's my top 10 pointers...

1. Leave the notepad behind

This is not a formal inspection, observation or fault finding exercise. The minute an individual sees something being written down, they will likely clam up and the conversation will stall.


If you do want to record the fact that you have had a conversation, for example if you are measuring targets / objectives for your leadership's engagement, then by all means record your conversation back at your desk. But, don't give names or make it obvious who you had a conversation with. If you do and the individual (and others) gets wind of the record, the next time you attempt to have a conversation, it may not be as effective.


2. Always see the positive side

There may be times when the conversation takes place as a result of observing and intervening in an unsafe act or condition; however, the opportunity should be grasped to improve the situation for the benefit of the individual(s) and others.


3. Introduce yourself

It sounds so simple, so obvious, but if you don't introduce yourself to people, they will likely be on the back foot from the start wondering what your intentions and motives are.


Be as natural and open as you can, be yourself. Some people are naturally confident with people they first meet or are unfamiliar with, others aren't so confident. The way I see it, I believe that my conversations make a difference, so I need to overcome any lack of confidence to make that difference. If I don't and something goes wrong that may have been prevented just by having a conversation, I don't think I'd cope with that at all!


4. Take an interest in their job

I'm a firm believer that if you take an interest in anybody's job, they will tell you about it! It's a great way to find out how to do the job safely as they are the experts. You might even learn something new and interesting.


5. Ask what specific task they are doing

Again, take an interest. If the task is new to you, you will need an understanding of what's going on. Otherwise, asking how they are getting on with their task will likely help the conversation flow naturally.


6. How can you get hurt doing this?

Killer questionThis is probably the most important question. The way this question is answered will dictate the direction of the conversation. Some people will welcome the opportunity to talk about their perception of how safe / unsafe the job is, some won't actually see the risks if their perception of risk is low and some think of that old chestnut, 'I've been doing it this way for years'!


As your conversation develops, use open questions and tease out responses, if you are only getting one word answers, you may need to change your approach.


You should avoid spoon feeding the person the answers, your ultimate goal is to have the person recognise the hazards of the job and to actually say the words themselves. By doing this, the person's thinking has now switched to accepting that there are risks after all and it helps reaffirm the message when they go to do the task again.

Depending on the task, there is usually always more than one way of getting hurt and it would be great if you could talk about them all, but it may be just as effective to talk about the most significant hazard. That way, you can have a real good quality conversation at that time. Save other hazards and conversations for another day if appropriate.


7. If you think you won't get hurt, how would you teach an inexperienced person how not to get hurt?

I often come across people who just don't believe they will get hurt and there's nothing I can tell them that they don't know already. They have been doing it that way for years and they feel they are doing everything in their power to be careful. To be fair, I accept that argument (to a point) as people on the whole will be careful. However, times move on and expecting people to keep themselves safe by being 'careful' just doesn't cut it anymore.


In this situation, I like to turn things back around. My industry sector is manufacturing, heavy engineering. I'm not an engineer, so I can easily get away with asking all the stupid questions about most of the hazardous jobs in our facilities. I would give the individual a scenario of me starting work with them, my first day / week on the job, and they have to teach me how to keep myself (and others) safe doing that job. It's amazing how easily they can rhyme off the safe systems of work and risk assessment controls that should be in place, especially if they can prove to you they know more about it than you do!


Switch, reward or punish


Accept the information, discuss it and reinforce compliance with it as positive behaviour.


8. Do you think things could be improved to make it safer?

If your conversation is as a result of having to stop a job for safety reasons, this is the point where you both come together to find a safer way of doing things. It's crucial at this point to ensure the individual agrees and accepts that something needs to change or somebody is likely to get hurt or made ill.


After they agree, there is no going back for them. It then becomes unacceptable to continue doing things the same way and a solution must be found. This is the point where people should have that feeling of being responsible for their own safety and not the feeling that the safety department is responsible.


9. What will you do to make these improvements?

So, you have both agreed that things need to change. If there's an easy solution at the time, solve it. This could be by committing to keep wearing safety glasses at all times or always wearing a harness at height for example. If further improvements are needed, challenge the individual into doing something about it themselves. Allow them the freedom to go away and come up with a solution and once they have it, praise them for it, let them own it, let them share it with others, let them talk about it...


10. If you do that, I'll do this...come to an agreement

It cuts both ways. If they agree to do something about it, you should commit to doing something about it also. If you are a manager, you could commit to providing the resources to make the solution happen. If you are an health and safety professional, you could commit to supporting them all the way, or by raising the issue at the next committee meeting or whatever you feel will benefit. You should also commit to checking up that the agreement is being upheld by all parties involved, including those doing the tasks in the first place!


Shake hands! Yes, it's old fashioned, but at the end of the day, the agreement is sealed and sacred.


Following on from the improvements made from the ten points above, when you do go back to check that things have improved and people are doing as they have agreed, just say thank you!


This has an amazing effect on people, similar to that of training dogs new tricks. Positive reinforcement breeds positive behaviour. The more thanks a person gets for doing things right, the more puffed out their chest will be and the more chance there is of them doing more to please, i.e. complying with safe systems of work, looking for improvements etc.


It's quite simple really, 'go out there and catch somebody doing something right...then say thank you'.