Improving frontline safety culture through knowledge

Many professionals in the safety sector will encounter difficulties with frontline safety culture (especially in improving or changing that culture).  The rub lies in impressing the importance of safety on them: i.e., finding the right way to get frontline workers to care about safety measures.

Most workers care about the safety of themselves and their colleagues.  One good analogy I’ve encountered comes from computing: people have limited mental processing power, and so their attention and care factor gets allocated to the tasks that are higher priorities.  Safety is not always the highest of priorities.

Our goal as safety practitioners, then, is to shape the risk perception of frontline workers to improve how they think about safety.

How knowledge helps shape safety culture

The messaging needs to be clear: frontline workers need to understand how safety measures are directly linked to the things they care about.

The media used for that messaging varies.  A common approach is to keep the messaging concise to improve the chances of retention.

Here I want to talk about how knowledge can be built (other than using pithy safety slogans, which also have their place).

Knowledge is the result of applying human context to information.  For example, there is a beeping sound and a flashing seatbelt light: the human truck driver reads this in the context of his workplace, and knows that he has forgotten to put on his seatbelt.

Workers already have a really good sense of their daily work.  They have plenty of context to apply to the information that they encounter on a daily basis.  That hard-won context is what enables them to identify priorities in their work and get things done.

So the key to shifting their attitudes on safety is to demonstrate the connection between safety measures and the context of their work.  A really good way to shape this kind of knowledge is through using risk diagrams.

Building knowledge through diagrams

Diagrams and pictures can be great for rapid knowledge acquisition.  Sometimes talking or reading about something is confusing, and visualising the subject in a real-world environment leads to the “aha” moment.

Below is an example of the kind of poster messaging that often gets used in safety.  There are no diagrams, and no clear link between the safety measures and the daily experiences of the workers.

Drivers: have you

– Read the daily traffic update?

– Left your mobile phone in your locker?

– Done your pre-start check?

– Fastened your seat belt?

But there are two things lacking:Our poster is doing one thing well: it’s focusing the drivers’ attention on a short list of important items, which helps improve their perception of the importance of each of these things.

  1. The WHY: What are these things related to? Why do I really need to waste my valuable time caring about any of these things?
  2. The HOW: How is each of these things important? Do I really need to do every single one?

From the safety professional’s point of view, we know the why and the how.  We’ve carried out a risk assessment, identified some hazards, and determined the important controls.  We’re aiming to improve safety awareness by reducing our big spreadsheet down into a short list.

The alternative is to use a diagram which promotes deeper knowledge.  That deeper knowledge is a worry for many safety professionals: they know their workers, and they know how short the attention span is for safety matters.

But the kind of diagram I’m talking about links directly to the context which is important to workers, which means that the knowledge is potentially embraced rather than ignored.

Consider this simple bowtie diagram:

We’re covering the same ideas in a different format.  This format requires a little more attention, so it’s something that would be discussed in a toolbox before being put on a poster.

But this diagram improves safety culture by promoting deeper knowledge.  Rather than reminding, we’re giving workers a solid knowledge base that they are less likely to forget.  We’re inviting workers to engage with the bowtie risk assessment in a format that they can understand.

This can work particularly well with workers that are independent, and prefer to learn on their own rather than be fed key snippets of information.

For the average worker, a bowtie diagram makes the risk picture much clearer.  It doesn’t take a high level of skill to grasp the idea.

In our example above, the bowtie communicates very clearly why every single safety measure is important.  The original poster gave a clear message that they were important, but gave no sense of how they could be equally important for different things.

The bowtie diagram shows how the safety measures fit into the bigger picture.  What’s more, with each cause clearly described they are able to visualise exactly what kind of situation might need the safety measure.

This is where bowtie diagrams are good for hooking into human psychology.  The human brain retains some types of information better than others.  Information about real dangers is retained particularly well.  If we use the bowtie diagram to help workers visualise the accident scenario they want to avoid, we promote the retention of that knowledge.

Using diagrams for fatality risks in safety culture

Bowtie risk assessments are, of course, most powerful when we are dealing with fatality risk scenarios.  These are the scenarios that warrant the most careful analysis (and the most robust safety culture).

One of the challenges here is that bowties for fatality risks are usually bowtie risk assessments, designed to be accurate and detailed.  The amount of detail can confuse and deter engagement with frontline workers.

This is where it is important to use the right diagramming tool for the bowtie risk assessment.  We want to have a simple, accessible version of the diagram that frontline workers can use.  What we don’t want is to have two different diagrams for the same scenario.

In the example below, we’ve used RiskView to create our fatality bowtie risk assessment.  We’ve got two different perspectives that we can apply to the same bowtie depending on the audience.

Here’s the detailed view (using a very simple bowtie):

Here’s the simple poster view that we would share with the workforce:

The bowtie risk assessment is actually identical, including all the fields.  We are simply displaying fewer fields in the poster version to make the diagram more accessible.

Linking the safety culture back to the bowtie risk assessments is also a fantastic outcome.  It means that behaviours are risk-based.  The danger with pithy slogans and simplified safety messaging is that it anchors the safety culture to that messaging, rather than being directly connecting to an understanding of bowtie risk assessments.

We’ve primarily used simple examples in this article, but the idea is entirely scalable.  Improving safety culture can be achieved by promoting worker knowledge.  Rather than reduce our workers’ exposure to the risk register, we can get them more engaged in it.

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