Careful use of words and language, regular dialogue and leading by example are crucial for ensuring safety on construction sites, according to a Melbourne-based leader on occupational health and safety.

SafetyJourney director Michelle Farley said the impact of the language used when talking to workers about safety cannot be understated.

She said unconscious biases mean individual words used by managers can have an unintended effect on staff, and that taking the time to understand the type of language which resonates with people is integral.

Farley also said managers must ensure they talk to workers about safety often. She cited the example of ‘Joe’, an operational leader for an organisation of considerable size who was mortified to learn that his workers held the impression that ‘production’ was of foremost importance to him and that safety, while important, was not his number one priority.

Michelle Farley

Michelle Farley

The penny had dropped for Joe, Farley said, when asked how often he talked to his workers about production and safety – the former being every day and the latter only occasionally, usually when problems occurred.

“I said to Joe, ‘what message are they going to take from that about what is most important to you – the thing you talk to them about all the time, or the thing you talk to them about sometimes?’” Farley explained.

“Saying safety is your number one priority on your web site or on posters and having it as part of your corporate governance is good, but that doesn’t demonstrate to people that you mean it.

“What demonstrates that you as an individual manager mean it are your individual behaviours and the language that you use.”

Farley said words such as ‘why’ and ‘you’ can be toxic when managers see practices they feel are not right and with good intentions ask workers about them – say, for example, when a manager notices a worker operating a tool or piece of equipment without the guard down.

Despite the positive intention, Farley said such words may make workers feel threatened or vulnerable, and may therefore unintentionally cause the worker to adopt a defensive mindset.

One possible alternative, she said, might be for the manger to share a personal example about how they themselves made a similar mistake on a previous work or domestic project – an approach she said would see the manager rather than the worker becoming vulnerable and the interaction becoming a positive one which strengthens relationships, with the worker most likely picking up on the importance of working with the guard in place without having been made to feel uncomfortable.

In another example, Farley cautions words such as ‘just 19’ in a recent article describing a welcome reduction in the number of workplace fatalities on construction sites Australia from 30 in 2012 to 19 in 2013 could have an unintended effect of encouraging complacency and detracting from the need to eliminate all fatalities on construction sites.

Farley also feels complimenting workers on good practices and behaviour can be helpful, and added that mentalities which suggest workers who do things the right way are ‘not doing anything special and just doing their job’ or that it went without saying that safety was a priority should be avoided.

She encourages managers to set the example through their own behaviour, both when they are being watched and otherwise.

In a recent example, the behaviour of a manager who politely insisted a taxi driver refrain from using his mobile when driving whilst she and a less senior colleague were in the vehicle had a significant impact on the subordinate, who saw that the manager did more than simply talk about safety and later shared what had happened with her colleagues.

“That empowered those people (the colleagues) to take their own actions and made it acceptable for them to speak up when they saw something that didn’t feel right,” Farley said. “It was showing by doing rather than saying. This authenticity in leaders is true safety leadership.”