Effective communications is extremely important to the goal of increasing employee involvement in safety and health. Skilled safety communications will support leadership, at all levels, from the CEO to the employee. So, let's get started with a review of some basic communications concepts and principles.
The most basic communication theory talks about the requirement for both a sender and receiver in the communication process. The characteristics of the sender and receiver may be quite different. For instance, communication may take place between two individuals, two groups, two companies, two nations, and sometime in the future...(maybe) between two worlds. Although the scope of the communications process may expand, the process still boils down to basically two people talking over various channels.
The sender initiates the communication and the receiver receives, interprets, and responds to the communication. At this point the initial sender assumes the role of receiver. Where and how the process ends depends on the purpose of the communication and the dynamics of the process itself. Even the simplest communication between two individuals may be a very complicated process.
Another important concept in communications is the Two-Level Theory which states that in any communications process messages are sent and received on two levels. The first level is called the content level and describes only what is sent. The only information transferred at this level is data, usually in the form of spoken words.
Speaking of data... Data, the android on Star Trek only communicates on the content level. If you are familiar with this character you know that the failure to communicate on a relationship level prevents him from becoming more like his human counterparts.
The second level of communication exists on a higher, more abstract plane. It's called the relationship level which describes the communication that establishes the relationship between the sender and the receiver. It's how the message is sent that sets up the relationship. Relationships between sender and receiver are always established with every communication.
Back to Star Trek (the original series). Capt Kirk, the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, always communicated on both the content level and relationship level, while Mr. Spock, our favorite Vulcan, tried with some difficulty to communicate only on the content level. Consequently he always appeared cool, calm, cold, and mechanical.
Let's take a closer look at the dynamics of content/relationship communications:
First Scenario: Charlie Pendergast is sitting at the breakfast table reading the morning paper while his wife, Gloria is cooking up some bacon and eggs (They take turns cooking). Charlie, suddenly looks up from the paper and asks rather flirtatiously, "Oh dear, when are those eggs going to be done." Gloria is getting positive attention from charlie and responds casually with, "Here they come now, dear," and brings Charlie a nice plate of bacon and eggs, and gives him a big kiss.
Second Scenario: Charlie Pendergast is sitting at the breakfast table, face buried in the morning paper while his wife, Gloria is cooking up some bacon and eggs. Charlie, face in paper, obviously irritated, verbally assaults Gloria with, "Oh Dear, WHEN ARE THOSE EGGS GOING TO BE DONE?!" Gloria feels hurt and unappreciated. She slowly turns, fire in her eyes, and says, "Here they come now...DEAR!" and throws the plate full of eggs down on the table in front of him, and stomps off to the bedroom.
In both cases, the content of Charlie's message was exactly the same. However, The relationship set up between the two in the second scenario differed greatly from that established in scenario number one. Consequently, Gloria gave Charlie a vastly different response in the second scenario. In the first scenario, Charlie sent a positive relationship message. In the second scenario, the relationship message was very negative. To Gloria, how Charlie sent the message had far more impact than what he said.
So how does all this fit into workplace safety and health?
Every time a supervisor recognizes an employee for safe work behaviors, it reinforces and makes that behavior more likely to occur in the future. It sends a very positive message, doesn't it. On the other hand, if a supervisor yells at you for "complaining," a very negative message is sent. But, I think the worst situation occurs when you are totally ignored by a supervisor. It sends a message that you are invisible, unimportant, and of little or no value. Ignoring others who are trying to communicate is the worst response possible.
If you are a safety committee representative, think about the relationship set up between you and your coworkers. What happens when you receive their concerns and suggestions, report them to the safety committee, but fail to provide feedback in a timely manner? Aren't you ignoring them? Again, it's the worst of all possible responses. Make sure that you get back with your coworkers as soon as possible to let them know the status of their concerns or suggestions. This is probably your most important job as a safety committee representative.
How do you know your safety suggestion program is working? When the suggestion box isn't crammed with candy wrappers and the remnants of old tuna sandwiches. Well, it isn't that bad, but if your suggestion program results in only a few suggestions each month, that's a symptom of failure. So, let's look at it.
Remember, communications is the key. If the program is failing, it means that those managing the program are not communicating well... and possibly even ignoring employees who make suggestions (shutter the thought). If management wants a successful suggestion program, they must effectively communicate that on both the content and relationship levels. On the content level, they can write a suggestion program plan, and inform everyone about it. On the relationship level, however, they need to respond positively to each and every suggestion employees make. That means action! It means showing appreciation through recognition and rewards, and it means acting on the suggestions offered.
Source: Steven Geigle, CSHM
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