Which Safety Conversations Have the Most Impact?

“The Toolbox Topic for today is chemical safety,” the supervisor said as he looked down at the information sheet. “The first group of chemicals we will review are known as acids. Strong acids have a pH…”

With this introduction, the warehouse crew in the room immediately tuned out. Some looked at the ceiling. Some stared at their shoes. Some took a quick peek at their cell phones.


Too often, we view safety conversations as something that must be done. When we talk with employees about safety, our conversations are often reactive and seldom well-planned. If a safety meeting is conducted by a leader whose primary goal is to “check the box” for required training, the response is predictable. There is little or no engagement. These conversations have almost no impact in terms of engagement, learning, or mindset.

There are three essential attributes for proactive safety conversations to have a positive impact. Think of these as the “3 Ps” of an effective proactive conversation:
1. Principled
2. Prevalent
3. Personalized

Your employees need to know that you care about them.

Almost every organization has certain safety topics that are mandated. Yet it makes a significant difference if you deliver these messages with a “why” of caring.

It does not matter if you hold a one-on-one safety conversation or if you talk to an entire work group. It does not matter if the topic of the conversation is mandatory. Regardless, your message has more impact when your motive is based upon a core principle of personal caring.

There are three situations when safety conversation topics can be considered “prevalent.” These are situations that include significant hazards, common risks, or potential error traps, all of which must be addressed.

• Identify tasks where there is a significant hazard. Proactive conversations with this focus could be the difference in whether someone is exposed to a hazard that results in a life-changing event.
• It is not unusual for people who perform certain tasks to all take the same risk. Their decision to take an unnecessary risk could be rooted in a false perception that they are unlikely to get hurt. Or perhaps they are influenced to take this risk because an obstacle makes it difficult to do the job the safe way. Regardless, a safety conversation that probes the reasons why someone might be influenced to take a risk can be revealing.
• People are fallible. We are frequently subjected to error traps (situations or conditions that make it more likely for us to make a mistake). Understanding error traps and collaborating with employees to mitigate these can be extremely effective in reducing the likelihood of human errors that can lead to an incident.

Let’s go back to the warehouse crew. Obviously, chemical safety was not meaningful to this group of employees (unless, of course, they were handling, transporting, or loading chemicals). The topic was not personalized.

The first question these employees asked themselves when the meeting started was WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) As soon as they determined the answer to this question (“not much!”), they mentally checked out. It is your responsibility to make a personal connection between the topic and your audience. If the safety conversation is not related to (1) a job that they do or (2) a place where they are active, it will be difficult or impossible to keep their attention.

So, which proactive safety conversations have the most impact?

An effective proactive safety conversation always starts with a “why” of caring. It has the potential for high impact when the topic addresses a significant hazard, risk, or error trap and these situations are present in the work being done or the areas where the employee is engaged in an activity.

Proactive safety conversations that are principled (based on caring), prevalent (address common hazards, risks, or error traps) and personalized (relevant to the individual) have the most impact. Use these criteria to initiate and frame your conversation. You are more likely to have a discussion where the employee is engaged and the conversation is memorable.

David Allan Galloway is president of Continuous MILE Consulting and has more than 35 years of paper industry experience. He is the author of Safety WALK Safety TALK: How small changes in what you think, say, and do shape your safety culture. [email protected]