Not too long ago I was told that I tell too many stories. The comment was intended as constructive criticism. I usually try to at least consider those things with a (mostly) open mind. This time it just made me laugh. That very morning I had gotten a comment back on one of my blog posts that said:

“You’re a great storyteller. The guys relate to that.”

Those two conflicting statements got me thinking. I’ve learned through the years that not everyone wants to sit through a parable and wait for the moral of the story. There’s a time and place, so I’m not going to dismiss my “constructive criticism” outright. But I do believe we need to tell better stories if we want to be more relatable as safety professionals.

The alternative is saying things like “because OSHA says so…” Let me give you an example.

Do you see what’s wrong here?

I stood bewildered after the VP of Safety asked me that question. I honestly didn’t have a clue. He and I had been touring my facility and had just finished the basic walk around when he asked to watch a job in progress. Since it wasn’t a surprise visit, I’d already selected a good one.

The crew, was performing emergency maintenance on a food-grade charcoal filter. They were one of the best crews at our location. Their job planning sheets had been completed, their equipment was in good condition, their scaffold was erected properly and signed off. It was a well thought out operation.

Maintaining the filter was relatively straightforward. The crew lifted bags of charcoal (40lbs each) assembly-line style to the top of the scaffold where the final crew member would open the bag and empty it into a hopper. Good body mechanics were in use and they had minimized the lifts by employing twice as many people as needed. I was proud of them. Then came the question.

That Knife is a VIOLATION…

I had apparently stood looking dumbfounded long enough, so the VP let me in on his egregious discovery. The man at the top of the filter had used a small rope to attach a utility knife to the rail of the scaffold. Once the bags were hoisted up to him, he would place each on a small platform, cut the top, and then pick it back up to empty it into the hopper. I had failed to notice the knife was of the fixed-blade variety.

It was a violation of our policy, that was not up for argument. I would still argue, however, that it was the right tool for the job. The alternative being that the crew could have signed out a self-retracting blade from the parts room, or worse, used something like a screwdriver or other tool not meant for the task.

There were two disappointing things about the way that “violation” was handled. The first was that it downplayed everything those “guys” had done right. There was no mention of their exceptional pre-planning, or conscientious use of body position. Only the one “wrong” thing. I put that in quotations, because using the self retracting blade we had available was actually quite cumbersome (dare I say, more hazardous) while wearing the thick, cut resistant gloves which were in use.

The second was that the episode actually instigated a month’s long investigation into the finding “right” type of knife. I’m all for improving, but that answer may have simply been to train our people on proper knife handling. Instead it became a running joke rather than an opportunity. I mean, what would chefs do if their restaurant owner banned filet knives?

Figure Out the Reasons Before Offering Solutions

Some things are sharp and scary, I get it. I also get that some Safety Professionals feel like they’re not contributing if they don’t eliminate a new hazard every day (regardless of the actual risk it poses). That’s probably why we write such bad procedures and policies. But this episode reminds me of why it’s so important that we check our egos and get out and learn about the jobs before we write policies that hinder them.

If the knife incident had been addressed with a story, even a short one, about the reasoning behind our policy, it might not have become a joke. That story may have even opened up some good discussions and brainstorming. Maybe someone would have come up with a solution no one had ever entertained before.

You can’t just make it up

A few months later, I participated in a formal mentoring program with that same VP. He was actually a really good guy, but corporate through and through. He and I had a call scheduled on a day when I had unexpectedly stayed home to address some pluming issues at my house. My dad and I were outside repairing access to my water main when the forgotten call came.

I apologized for forgetting about the call and explained about the pluming work.

“Wow, I wouldn’t even know how to get started doing something like that,” came his response.

That was a light bulb moment for me. I realized that he had no practical experience working in the field (plumbing and other building maintenance was our team’s main role). Many safety people don’t, and that’s perfectly fine. Just don’t try to fake it. The people who do the work in your organization will see through that instantly.

Here’s a trick I use. While I know my way around tools and maintenance, I’m certainly no 20+ year craftsman (my wife reminds me often). So, I don’t try to be. I ask. In fact, my first question when I’m on a site, regardless of whether I already know the answer is “what are you working on?”

I ask that question even if I notice a “violation” (unless someone is doing something that could cause harm immediately). That usually levels the playing field and the answer gives me an opportunity to start a conversation. Usually I don’t even have to mention the thing that’s wrong because the worker ends up explaining why he or she is doing it. That’s where you make your money. Once you figure out why the violation, shortcut, unsafe behavior, etc. is happening, you have an opportunity to fix the system.

If you start with the negative, you may get compliance while you’re standing over their shoulder but you won’t get buy-in to make a lasting change. So start telling stories. Or, if you don’t have one of your own, at least listen to someone else’s. You might be surprised what you learn.

Hi. I’m Jason. I’m the author of the book A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit from CRC Press. I’m excited to get to share it with you all and hope it will be as valuable a tool to you as it has been to me. There is no other safety book out there like it. That’s not me being arrogant and assuming you’ll love it. You might not. But at least we’ll be able to have a needed conversation about the change needed in the safety profession. It is available now! Email me at Jason@relentlesssafey.com

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