Why constructive feedback is essential to safety culture

By |  June 22, 2018
Photos courtesy of Caterpillar

Most organizations do not effectively train supervisors and managers to communicate safety expectations clearly, frequently or in a way that is positively perceived by employees. Photos courtesy of Caterpillar

It was 4:15 on a Thursday afternoon. Most employees had already left the hydroelectric dam at the end of the day shift.

The six men remaining were gathered around an electrical cabinet, troubleshooting one of the dam’s generators. The only journeyman of the group was crouched down, performing work while the others watched over his shoulder.

The journeyman hadn’t taken the time to put his fire retardant clothing on, but no one said anything. There was confusion about the energized status of a circuit and if it was locked out. But no one questioned the experienced man or confirmed with the control room.

When the journeyman closed a breaker, the energized circuit caused an arc blast, severely burning all six men. Five of the men were airlifted to a hospital 150 miles away, and one never returned to work.

An investigation into the incident determined it was not faulty equipment that caused the blast. It was a failure due to culture.

All the men knew the proper procedure for testing and getting clearance, but no one spoke up. No one asked questions. And now, all of them will wear permanent scars of that failure to give safety feedback for the rest of their lives.

Start with supervisors

Nearly every organization I’ve worked with tells its employees to “speak up” when they see something unsafe.

It’s typically part of new employee orientation on the first day. However, almost no organization trains its employees on how to have that conversation with a peer or superior when they see an unsafe behavior occur.

Even fewer train employees on how to receive safety feedback from others in a constructive manner, and to respond with an attitude of gratitude. When building a safety training program, environmental health and safety professionals tend to overlook these “soft” interpersonal skills and focus mostly on compliance. But these critical components set the tone for overall safety performance.

Most companies tell their employees to speak up when they see something unsafe, but few train employees how to have that conversation with a peer or superior when they see an unsafe behavior occur.

We all prioritize our job responsibilities by interpreting verbal and non-verbal input from our direct supervisor. What our supervisor demonstrates is important and usually becomes our focus, too. Unfortunately, most organizations do not effectively train supervisors and managers to communicate safety expectations clearly, frequently or in a way that is positively perceived by employees.

This issue is apparent in the global database of a Caterpillar safety perception survey. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken the assessment, 96 percent of frontline employees agree their organization actively encourages them to work safely. However, 51 percent say risks are sometimes overlooked to get the job done, and 24 percent have actually been asked to do something they felt was unsafe.

There is a disconnect between senior leader intentions for the organization and the people who actually work closest to the hazards. If we want all of our employees to work in a manner that reflects safety as a value – just like production and quality – then we must set clear expectations for them and train them how to perform.

When training your employees on how to give and receive feedback, start with your leaders because they set the example and reinforce the expectations.

Develop a program

The first step of developing a safety feedback program is clearly defining what “feedback” is all about. It’s not about being a compliance officer, rules and regulations, or reciting the corporate safety policies. It’s about showing care and respect for other people because you don’t want something bad to happen to them or people around them.

While it seems simple and straightforward, there are many emotional barriers keeping people from speaking up when they see someone doing something unsafe. We must help others overcome these common excuses in the moment:

■ “It’s the supervisor’s job to do something.”
■ “If it doesn’t affect me, I’m not going to get involved.”
■ “They might get upset with me.”
■ “They don’t even work for us.”
■ “I’m not sure what the policy is.”

Committing to giving safety feedback requires us to get over these barriers, because, failing to speak up could have dire, lifelong consequences. If our silence permits an unsafe situation to become an injury or fatality, looking in the mirror every morning becomes a heavy burden to bear.

Our employees need to understand and reflect on that reality more so than rules and regulations. Train them on three simple steps to giving safety feedback:

1. Ask the person why he or she is doing the job that way, and let them know that it is causing you concern for their safety. Maybe the person wasn’t trained in the correct process. Maybe the person saw the boss doing it this way before. Maybe they’re taking an alternate route because the prescribed process doesn’t work and this method is just as safe. Or, maybe they’re really just taking a shortcut. You won’t know until you ask.

People are much more likely to respond in a favorable manner if you ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions or reciting rules to them.

2. Work with people to find a safer solution and then ask them to commit to doing it that way. If you involve them in developing the solution, they will be much more likely to work in that manner. It may feel awkward or confrontational to directly ask them to change their behavior, but it’s verbalizing this agreement that reinforces what they’re committed to.

3. The final, critical step is to follow up with the person to ensure that the behavior agreed to is actually being performed. Since the person made a commitment in the second step, this will likely be an opportunity to give him or her positive recognition. Recognition reinforces that you are paying attention, you care and the commitment he or she made is important to you.

If the person has not changed their behavior, remind them of their commitment and ask why they haven’t changed their behavior. Tell them you will be forced to elevate the situation if they continue to work unsafely.

Giving safety feedback

Giving feedback is only half of the equation. We also must train our employees to be open to receiving safety feedback from others.

This begins with an understanding of what receiving feedback means, regardless of the manner in which the feedback is delivered to us. If someone gives us safety feedback, it means we are acting in a way that causes concern for our own or others’ safety.

Additionally, it means the giver of the feedback overcame all of his or her personal barriers to give us that message. We owe this person enough respect to stop what we are doing and at least listen to what he or she has to say. There are only two steps to receive feedback: listen and commit.

1. Listen to what the person has to say. Let’s face it, safety feedback can sound and feel like criticism, but it’s really about caring. Even if the giver of the feedback doesn’t deliver it in a constructive, tactful manner, we must get to the heart of the message and determine exactly what we are doing that is causing concern.

2. Commit to a safer solution that you and the deliverer of the feedback agree on. Avoid being passive or aggressive in your response. Assert yourself by asking questions to understand the issue and how it could be remedied. Then, follow up your commitment by changing your behavior. Respond to the feedback with gratitude that the person cared enough to speak up.

Final thoughts

Giving and receiving safety feedback is simple in principle but challenging in process. It requires training, practice and reinforcement.

I had the privilege of meeting with the injured men and their rescuers at the hydroelectric power generation company one year after the incident. Some of them had returned to work just a few weeks prior. They were there to evaluate the idea of adding the Caterpillar “Speak Up! Listen Up!” training to their safety culture transformation journey, and there was a palpable tension in the room.

As I led them through self-assessments and video scenarios, the men started to open up about what kept them from speaking up in the critical moment. The tipping point came when the journeyman that closed the breaker and caused the explosion raised his hand and while choking back emotions said, “Everyone in this company needs to go through this training.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Healing began that day between those scarred men with the simple understanding that safety feedback is not about compliance; it’s about caring. And while their footprints seared into the concrete serve as a reminder to all who pass through that corridor, all members of the organization now have the skills and the support to give and receive feedback well.


Justin Ganschow is an account manager at Caterpillar Safety Services.

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