Spoiler Alert: You can’t.
I’ve heard that question repeatedly over the years, delivered with varied levels of hostility. The one that’s stuck in my head was a quick conversation with an employee who was new to her position. At the time, I was new in my role as well. And working in an unfamiliar industry. When she asked, I had my pre-programmed response locked and loaded.
Looking back I probably came off as a pompous safety ass just like the very examples I write so frequently about. It wasn’t that my answer was wrong, it was simply that it was empty. I told her what I tell everyone who asks.
My job isn’t to make you safer.
It’s to provide the tools and training needed to facilitate safe work. But I could tell the answer didn’t resonate with her (mostly based on the eye roll). So I made it a point to go back. Not once, but often.
Each visit began with a question for her.
Do you have everything you need?
Usually the answer was “yeah.” She would smile and let me know that everything was good. I’m not sure that was always true, but one thing I do know is that she appreciated my asking. It built trust between us.
Eventually her answers became more descriptive. Sometimes she would tell me it was all good. Other times she would ask me for suggestions about how to do something safer. There were even days when we just shared a few moments of small talk.
Then one day I didn’t have to ask
When I would walk in and she would talk to me first. We talked about safety every once in a while, but most of the time we just talked. But she knew I would find her an answer if she had a problem. We had built a relationship.
I don’t tell that story to brag about how great I am at interacting with people. If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s something that I have to work extremely hard on. Social interaction has always been difficult for me. But it’s necessary in leadership, and just life in general. Especially in the safety field.
We sell a product that workers have been conditioned to resit. So often we try to sell it “because OSHA says so.” Instead, we should sell it based on the fact that we care. That only happens if you engage… from one human to another.
I don’t have any quips or funny anecdotes to go with this story, just a bit of reflection. Like I said, I genuinely struggle in this department. If you do too, that’s OK. Keep practicing. Give people what they need. Then empower them to use it. Personal responsibility is a huge part of the relationship.