How To Write Better Safety Messages: Condescension Edition

How To Write Better Safety Messages: Condescension Edition

Bill still disprove of the way safety people write. Let’s fix it.

Emails don’t have tone, right?

Sure. Ice cream doesn’t have any carbs either.

I read an email recently that had been sent to an entire company. It was written by some corporate guy with some letters behind his name and a fancy safety title. That part wasn’t too offensive (I have some fancy letters too). I might have even been able to overlook the scores of grammatical errors. But I couldn’t get past the way it sounded as I read the words.

The email was supposed to be a safety lesson that crews could discuss and learn from. But it was so belittling and condescending, that I doubt many got to the point.

Don’t be as stupid as THAT guy…

The message was about as simple and straightforward as you can get. It’s author was encouraging everyone to think about their PPE selection when dealing with sharp objects, gloves in particular. To illustrate the point, the author retold a story about a worker who had cut himself while wearing Kevlar gloves. The worker had been shocked that he had still been cut even though he had been wearing “cut proof gloves” (his words). The rest of the email essentially made fun of the injured man for being so ignorant as to believe there actually was such a thing.

After reading the email I wouldn’t be surprised if the the author had responded to the injured worker, “They’re cut resistant, you idiot.”

Not everyone knows what you know

The whole point, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that our people deserve better than being talked down to. Safety messages need to draw people in, teach them something valuable, and inspire them to act. They’re not a medium we should use to boast our superiority.

Think about that next time you send an email, write a safety message, or just talk to someone face to face. I’m pretty sure there was a time when each of us knew nothing about safety gloves and their limitations. Maybe we should realize that about other people too.

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How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Brevity Edition

If you’ve ever used words like minutia or circumspect in a document, this one’s for you (but congrats on your big vocabulary).

Bill is back. We’re still not good at this.

If you’re new to this series, you can read the first three parts HERE (Execution Edition), HERE (Understanding Edition), and HERE (Ego Edition)

One of my favorite books is On Writing, by Stephen King. I’ve actually read it more than once, which for me is a rarity. In it he discusses his distaste for adverbs and the need to “kill your darlings.” I think that’s just as important for stories and characters as it is for the words we use in procedures.

“Omit needles words.”

-The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

You may not think there is a lot of similarity between writing a horror novel and writing a safety document, but I’d be willing to have that debate. Writing is writing. It’s just that some of it is boring as hell to read. If you accept that going in, your chances of getting someone to read your magnificent safety epic are that much greater.

For the love of all that is good, don’t make it an epic, though…

Be direct, be concise, and say what you mean. Here are a few common problems I see with the volumes of safety programs I have seen over the years:

  • Pages of exposition and explanation about who, why, what, when, where, and how
    • Safety Professionals are desperate to explain the justification behind what we write. I think maybe it’s a bit of overcompensation designed to prove to our people that we really care and we’re not just asking because OSHA said so. Those explanations are great, but here’s a newsflash. NO ONE reads them. Save the all important WHYs for training and face to face interactions. It will stick better that way anyway. No one wants to read BLS statistics (admit it, you don’t either) before they head to the job.
  • Confusing decision trees, charts, and pages upon pages of appendices
    • If your document reads like a choose your own adventure novel, your reader will most likely get eaten in the jungle by a rabid species of crocodile long thought to be extinct. Keep it simple.
  • Assuming “they get it”
    • The average worker does not think like a Safety Professional. That’s not a knock, it’s a fact based on roles. We are charged with identifying hazards, analyzing risk, and working to help provide solutions. Most positions in an organization are not that abstract. They’re task based. Align your writing style to that of the worker and you’ll get a lot more millage out of it.

There’s a lot more to talk about

But in the interest of keeping this post brief, I’m going to leave it to you for now. Look through your guidance documents and ask the questions yourself. Are they too long? Are the directions understandable?

Just remember, there’s always something to take out. If your safety manual is 150 pages or more, consider how many people actually know what’s in it. How much more effective would it be if it were 30? That may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s entirely possible.

If you struggle getting safety documents and guidance to stick, I’d be happy to help. Email me at if you’re interested in a consultation. As always I’ll continue this topic in the weeks to come. There’s a lot to unpack.

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How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Ego Edition

I thought about calling this one “proudity edition,” but I doubt many would appreciate the irony…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shakespeare-67698_640.jpg
Keep writing bad stuff, keep getting this look

A thought occurred to me the other day whilst (I’m using that word for my UK Friends, and also for the fact that I’ve been using a pic of Shakespeare in this series) I was pondering our state of being in the safety world. When you think about it, ours is really a weird profession. Seriously… it’s not hard to imagine why some people think hiring a safety professional is the corporate equivalent of a stupid warning on a hair drier. Especially if you think safety is just “common sense.” It’s no wonder those people hate the “safety guy.”

Awww. But that’s what I bought it for…

Safety doesn’t have a defined purpose in most organizations. In fact, as The Safety Minimalist Dennis Baker wrote this week, most of us “safety professionals” don’t even know how to define what we do. I believe that identity crisis stems from the fact that most companies only employ safety professionals because they have to. In those cases, the purpose of those safety professionals is solely OSHA compliance, regardless of what the corporate drones might say.

In that context, it makes sense that our policies and procedures follow that mold.

And so… employees shall…

How many of you are guilty of writing a line like that? I have been. I’m not too proud to admit it. I’ve also sat at my desk and foolishly scribed shit I just knew would make mine the safest site on earth… We need to quit it.

Like I said, ours is a weird profession. On one hand we’re expected to act in the company’s interest to avoid costly legal compliance-related expenses. On the other, we’re expected to influence and persuade people to work safely in their own interest. It’s a constant state of conflict.

People aren’t all that great at conflict, though. So, easy usually wins over great. Because great is hard. OSHA is easy. Hence the volumes upon volumes of policies and procedures telling employees what they “shall” do. It’s easier to write that than actually provide them meaningful instructions.

That idiot must not care enough

Those have been reading since I started this thing may remember my old boss The Tongue. If you haven’t read that story, it’s a fun one (give it a click, you won’t regret it). He was a jackass for sure, but I’m not above giving credit where it is due. The Tongue was a notably intelligent man. He never missed an opportunity to tell you that either. Usually by using his knowledge of big words to belittle those who weren’t on his level.

His writing was no different. It was filled with long, scientific descriptions and complicated equations. The directions were perfectly suited for industrial hygiene graduate students, but missed our target audience entirely. Most of his contributions to the site safety program took me two or three readings. Our carpenters and general laborers had neither the time nor patience for it. He was the boss though. So we printed them, put them in binders, and watched them collect dust.

All we had to do after that was wait. It never took long though. The Tongue had a keen eye for spotting violations. When he did, the poor soul in the wake of his wrath would quickly learn how stupid he or she was and informed of their general lack of care for safety. It was a sad, vicious cycle. The Tongue would write a procedure, the staff would not read it, The Tongue would get angry, and repeat.

He never got out of his own way

Just as I mentioned in my first edition about writing better safety procedures, success means first understanding that you’re not writing for yourself. You could write the most eloquent, academic, compliant, innovative masterpiece. But if no one reads it, you might as well never even try. Give your people instructions, simple instructions, they can and will use. All the big words you wanted to use instead can wait for your doctoral thesis or your blog on proudity.

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How to Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Understanding Edition

This post is the second in my series on writing better procedures

Bill still wants us to do better. How can you argue with the bard?

I miss the ridiculously simple instructions we had in the military. This weekend, amidst construction of the IKEA loft bed from hell, I longed for the days of reading “turn the screw on the left one-quarter turn.”

The bed wasn’t actually from IKEA, but it had enough parts to qualify. The “instructions” were pictures with basic directions such as “connect M (there were 79 of those BTW) to x using bolt #4 (105 of those).” It only took me four hours to get it together. Then a bonus trip to Home Depot to pick up some bolts to secure it to the wall (I am still a safety guy after all).

The agony was worth it though because my son is exceedingly proud of his new furniture. I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my parents for getting it for him, too.

But back to my point about instructions. In the Air Force, we had Technical Orders (TOs for short since everything in the military is an acronym). If memory serves, they were all written at an eighth grade reading level. Not as an insult to service members, but as insurance that no one misinterpreted them. The IKEA bed reminded me of the one time we didn’t have those instructions available. Let’s just say a bit of good-spirited rebellion ensued.

If you’ve been reading along, you may recall from reading THIS EARLIER POST that I was a munitions maintenance technician. Near the end of my first duty assignment (a one year tour in South Korea), I was leading a crew of three other Airmen whose primary job was to maintain air-to-ground tankbuster missiles. One morning a beat up, corroded metal box containing a special missile showed up with an accompanying work order for a complete refurb. The missile was special because it was the last one of it’s kind.

The USAF had plenty of newer models…

The missile was manufactured in 1960. Someone had found it one squirreled away in a warehouse and decided to send it off in style. I don’t remember the exact occasion, but some high-ranking pilot was going to fire the relic. In order for it to be fit for that type of fanfare, it needed a fresh coat of paint (and a full function check, but why sweat that detail if it wasn’t shiny…).

When my crew and I removed it from the ancient casket we saw something extraordinary. It had the same shape as the newer models, but it was… ugly. Ugly to a scary degree since explosives aren’t typically something you typically want to see rusted and broken down. Then we received another surprise.

There were no instructions.

We thumbed through the hundreds of pages of that missile’s TO and came up blank. The missile, as it turns out, was so old that it’s work instructions were retired. All we could find was a tattered picture in one of the appendices.

The four of us stood around it scratching our heads trying to interpret the faded drawing. If you’re not familiar, marking requirements on military equipment (munitions included) are extremely prescriptive. We had to measure out exactly the right width for the color band (an indicator of what type of explosive), place labels and letters meticulously, and ensure that the exact mil-spec colors were used. I’m oversimplifying the process to boot.

“Should we paint it OD (olive drab) like the others,” one of the guys asked. I looked up at him and then back at the black and white sketch.

“No,” I said. “I’m pretty sure this one’s pink.” Another of the guys looked up at me and grinned. He paused for a beat before chiming in.

“It does look pink,” he agreed. “And I think it has purple tiger stripes on the tail” The other two were fully now fully aware of the plot that was forming.

“I think it has one of those shark faces at the front, too. What do you guys think?” I asked.

With that we were off and running. We started with the function check, then checked all the torques on the bolts. But then… the real work began. When we were finished, the Air Force was the proud owner of a pink polka-dotted, purple tiger-striped, shark face missile. It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a real unicorn.

I know it’s not a missile. But… Shark Face! You get the picture.

The boss was not impressed…

Thankfully his boss was. In the end, the unicorn was shipped to the flight-line and fired with much more fanfare than the pilot was likely expecting. My only regret was that I didn’t get to see it.

At this point I hope you’ve figured out how the story relates to safety procedures. If not let me give you my takeaways.

The first is that people need meaningful instructions. I know that should go without saying, but it never ceases to amaze me how often leaders (safety or otherwise) assume that people know what’s expected. They might have a basic idea, but assuming they understand how to get the job done is a dangerous proposition. Plain and simple, if you want someone to do something tell them, then explain how to do it.

The second takeaway is that those instructions should be clear and concise. I’ll cover this in greater detail in the next post in this series. Until then, let’s just suffice it to say that copying an OSHA reg and calling it a procedure doesn’t fit the bill. If you want people to do something, tell them exactly what you want (turn the screw one-quarter turn…). No fancy words required.

There’s so much more to be said about this topic. It’s one that I believe is highly underrated. In the coming months, I’ll be developing a “Procedure Mastery Course” which will be available here at Relentless Safety. If that would be of interest to you, send me a note at jason@relentlesssafety and let me know what you’d like to see in a course like that.

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Your Safety Procedures Suck: Execution Edition

My first week in Korea while Serving in the US Air Force ended in an unexpected twist. It was my first active duty assignment, and as such, I was assigned to two weeks of acclimation training called First Term Airman’s Center, FTAC for short (everything in the military has an acronym).
On Friday afternoon, our class was expecting an early release so we could head downtown and party with the rest of the base.

Instead, we received a surprise visit from a Captain who worked in the Inspector General’s (IG) office.

The Captain, in turn, introduced us to a Technical Sergeant who would be assigned as our supervisor the following week. The base was going to be conducting a chemical warfare exercise, and since we were not yet released to our “shops” we were not eligible to participate. Instead, we would be helping the IG test out a new procedure.

The procedure had been penned at the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. In support of the test, the Command Chief (highest ranking enlisted member) was being flown in to observe. We were all in awe of the opportunity and excited to participate in something so high profile. We received instructions to meet at the IG at 0700 on Monday morning where the Tech. Sergeant would give us further instructions.

Monday came quickly and we all assembled outside on the steps to the building. The Tech. Sergeant held an officially sealed manila envelope and a few other pieces of paper. He told us that our mission was to transform an ordinary building into a chemical fallout shelter. The IG had chosen to perform the test on the Family Support Center and the envelope held the procedure. After explaining that the test would be conducted using spearmint (like the bubble gum) gas to spray the building, he extracted the “procedure.” I’ll paraphrase what it said so I don’t run the risk of saying anything super top secret:

  • Find a building
  • Get some duct tape and trash bags
  • Tape trash bags to the windows and doors
  • Hide inside the building
  • Don’t die

If you’re not laughing at that, it’s probably because you’ve written a procedure as awful as that one. I jest. You’ve probably written much worse. Ok ok, I’m kidding. You can imagine the confusion when we read that procedure. We all knew it wouldn’t work, but our Tech Sergeant was determined to make it.

So began the “tests.” We spent the first day attempting to duct tape plastic tarp (we upgraded) to all of the windows and doors of our makeshift shelter. In the humid Korean summer, the tape barely clung to the stucco walls. By the end of the day, we had battled honorably and mostly achieved our goal. There were corners sagging and the plastic certainly wasn’t airtight, but we left with a feeling of accomplishment. We were instructed to return at 0600 the following morning in full chemical gear.

In the morning we lined up single file and were sprayed with bubble gum scented gas. We were then instructed to “DECON” with activated charcoal pads. That essentially meant that we were filthy for the rest of the day. We then “hid” inside our shelter. At about 0900, we smelled the telltale smell. Enemy gum gas had penetrated our defenses!

From that point, we regrouped and began to brainstorm. All of the FTAC Airmen sat mostly on the sidelines as the Tech. Sergeant and two Staff Sergeants tossed out ideas. I remember them being at a loss until one of the Staff Sergeants spoke up.

“What if we screw it into the walls?” The FTACers looked at each other in disbelief. I figured no one would even consider that.

“Yeah, that could work,” said the other Staff Sergeant.

“Ok, if you think so. Let’s go get some drills and screws,” Said the Tech. Sergeant.

“But, Sir,” one of the Airmen spoke up. “Won’t the holes…” The Staff Sergeant who came up with the asinine idea laser beam stink-eyed him and he quieted down. With no more dissent in the group, we rounded up the drills and screws got to work.

The next morning we repeated the DECON ritual and then waited for the smell. It rolled in like clockwork and we were forced to regroup once again. This time we wised up and decided to use caulking to seal the plastic to the windows and doors. That did the trick. We ruined the building but accomplished the mission.

What I’m getting at here is simple: Don’t legislate from your desk. So often, safety professionals sit in their offices and dream up new policies, procedures, and standards without considering the people who will be forced to use them. We write detailed “roles and responsibilities,” tell employees what they “shall” do, and make up arbitrary rules that only impede progress on our worksites. What is actually needed is a partnership with those employees. In our case that summer in Korea, the IG would have saved tons of man hours and a little bit of embarrasment if they had consulted with the end users before writing their magnum opus.

If you are in the procedure writing business, do everyone a favor. Go out to the people you’re writing for (sometimes it’s easy to forget we’re not writing for ourselves) and tell them what you’re trying to accomplish. Then ask them how they could best achieve that goal. You’re much more likely to get buy-in this way and even more likely to get a procedure people can execute.

On the off chance you do write a crap procedure even when you follow that advice, try to have enough humility to adjust it. People respect leaders who can admit they aren’t perfect more than they do authorities who get indignant.

Writing is a necessary skill that is often overlooked in the safety profession. I’ll never profess to be the best, but I do know my way around words. Since so much of what we do is based on communication, I think it’s a disservice if we’re not at least competent. For that reason, I’ll be continuing this series in the weeks to come. If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe so you don’t miss it.

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