Has safety become a waste of time?

Has safety become a waste of time?

Was there a toolbox talk? Yes, tick. Was there a time allocated to safety? Yes, tick. Did it make any difference? Absolutely not! So, if we are honest, how much that is done in the name of safety is a waste of time?

Over the years I have been to countless safety meetings and toolbox talks. Sadly, so few have been inspirational. At the most recent one, it was apparent that most of the workers weren’t paying attention to what was being communicated. Their attention was focused solely on completing the circulating attendance register before rushing off to their stations. In spite of the obvious distraction, the safety representative continued to share his briefing.

I had spent the previous day with the leaders of the safety department and their passion and commitment to safety was stirring. With much enthusiasm, I was shown everything that they do to promote the importance of safety.

Rightly so, the safety manager was incredibly proud of the concerted effort the company had made to create a robust safety culture. What I found interesting was that having engaging toolbox talks was pivotal to this strategy.

Has safety become a waste of time?Despite all the good intentions and genuine desire to improve safety, that particular toolbox talk, like countless others, resulted in an artificial reading of a briefing to which almost no one was listening – the attendance form received far more attention. This one act exposed what was important to those in attendance.

No attempt was made to check whether understanding had taken place. There was no chance to ask questions and, most significantly, time was not taken to make it applicable to the employees’ work. It landed up being trivial and inconsequential and was a perfect opportunity missed.

It would have taken two minutes extra to make it a worthwhile toolbox talk. Only once the clipboard had gone around, should the safety representative have started his presentation.

Even better, he should have familiarised himself with the content beforehand, instead of reading it off in a dull parrot fashion. He could have generated more discussion by asking his team questions and by creating a platform for the crew to ask him questions. 

It is astounding that with all the money, time and work that goes into creating a zero-harm culture, so little of it translates beyond compliance. I cannot help to ask where the real benefit is…

If safety is truly a value, we need to find ways to make initiatives more meaningful. Imagine insisting on a new standard in which merely reading off the safety topic and moving onto the next item on the agenda is unacceptable. When leaders are properly prepared and make it a priority to use this time effectively, it sends out a message that safety is not frivolous.

Has safety become a waste of time?Providing a supervisor with basic group-facilitation skills would make a substantial difference. By using these skills, especially if they include the art of asking questions, toolbox talks can become an ideal opportunity to promote safety concepts in a relevant, practical and time-efficient way.

By asking critical questions, leaders can easily get their team’s input on how to effectively plan and manage relevant risks throughout the day. Asking “Do you understand?” simply does not cut it… Some more effective questions would include:

“Joe, you have lots of experience in this area, how can we apply this?”

“Considering what was shared, what are we going to do differently today?”

 “What changes do we need to make?”

“How are we going to use this information to ensure we work more safely today?”

Having a safety meeting before a shift is a fantastic idea if properly facilitated. Unfortunately, when done poorly, it loses its usefulness. In some cases, it can become counter-productive as people start to believe that safety is a farce as it isn’t taken seriously.

This doesn’t apply only to safety talks; doing repetitive risk assessments, leadership safety walkabouts, and hazard hunts can all easily fall into the same trap.

The practice of proactively looking for hazards is fundamental. However, this becomes a pointless exercise as soon as a leader puts a compulsory target to it, as the focus then shifts from finding hazards to meeting a quota.

It also turns into a frustrating superficial paperwork activity that generates a lot of negativity, as quality has been replaced with quantity.

The challenge that leaders face is to honestly evaluate the effectiveness of their safety practices. They need to ask themselves whether it is possible that they may be doing something that started out as a good idea, but has become a tedious, redundant exercise.

They need to be brutally honest and ask whether there are practices that need to be redesigned, or stopped altogether, because they add no value. On the other hand, they need to ask whether there are new practices that need to be introduced that will galvanise the desired safety culture.


Brett Solomon is the CEO of The Kinetic Leadership Institute and is a recognised leader in combining neuroscience, change management and leadership theory to drive cultural transformation processes. Brett specialises in neuro-leadership, especially when it comes to understanding what drives human behaviour and how to influence it. He has been involved in numerous safety culture change initiatives in throughout South Africa, Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

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