The No-Zombie Zone

May 30, 2017, 17:44 PM
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May/June 2017

Keeping employees engaged in safety meetings day in and day out can pose a challenge, but when they actively participate in training that uses varied approaches, safe habits stick.

By Megan Quinn

Safety Spotlight_No-Zombie ZoneNothing turns employees into zombies more quickly than a dry, uninspired presentation. Have you ever been to one where the presenter pops in a safety video, lets it play until the end, and concludes the session by abruptly turning on the lights? What about a training session where the presenter simply reads the company safety policy word for word?

These types of meetings aren’t just boring, safety experts say. They lack important opportunities for employees to retain the material, demonstrate their proficiency, and build safe habits that stick. At the same time, you don’t have to put together a circus sideshow to get employees to actively participate in a safety meeting instead of zoning out. Scrapyards can add more hands-on elements and real-world examples, recruit different employees to present safety topics, and follow up with employees to build more personal connections. Whether you’re planning a minutes-long toolbox talk at the beginning of the day or a longer safety meeting during the week, try the following tips for keeping employees engaged and taking ownership of their own safety.

Pick your presenter

Scrapyards typically conduct several kinds of safety meetings. There’s the short, daily “toolbox talk,” an informal safety meeting that focuses on a specific on-the-job topic such as staying out of vehicle blind spots or wearing a seat belt while in a forklift. This brief meeting usually takes place at the job site just before the work shift starts and might include a one-page handout with a few bullet points highlighting specific safety steps. Employees might attend longer, sit-down safety meetings each week in a breakroom or other meeting space, where a supervisor or manager goes over safety topics in more depth. They also might attend occasional or annual safety trainings as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires to refresh their knowledge about common safety practices such as lock-out/tag-out.

Choosing the right presenter for each type of meeting sets an important tone. Normally, a supervisor or manager might lead the meeting—after all, part of his or her job is to enforce safety rules. Yet Terry Cirone, ISRI’s vice president of safety, says scrapyards should also consider recruiting hourly employees to lead, especially if they have specific expertise in a safety topic area. A well-respected worker might be a good fit to lead a toolbox talk on a near-miss scenario he or she witnessed, or maybe a driver who has a good relationship with other drivers can help lead a road safety meeting, for example. When peers have a voice in safety meetings, it reinforces the idea that everyone is responsible for creating a safe work environment, and it builds trust among employees, she says. “Everyone expects the boss to say ‘Be safe.’ But when it comes from your co-worker? That has an added weight to it.”

Supervisors at The David J. Joseph Co. (Cincinnati) regularly ask hourly employees to lead safety meetings for their peers because of their on-the-job expertise and their unique ability to get their co-workers on board with safe work practices. “We actively encourage and coach them” to lead the talks, says Terry McWhorter, DJJ’s director of safety. “Co-workers see each other speaking vocally about safety, and this becomes contagious.”

Build public speaking and presenting skills

No matter who is in charge of a specific safety meeting, that person should have an engaging speaking and teaching style that can convey information clearly. Yet most employees were hired for their scrapyard-related abilities, not their public speaking skills, and finding someone with a natural talent might be tough. That doesn’t worry Scott Jacoby, vice president of health and safety for Schnitzer Steel Industries (Portland, Ore.). Just as employees receive training on how to drive a forklift, “leaders have to be trained to facilitate an effective daily toolbox meeting. It’s a learned skill,” he says. Training for these skills should be part of your general supervisor roles-and-responsibility training, he says.

Several companies offer specific train-the-trainer opportunities that help build good speaking and presenting skills. At DJJ, all managers and supervisors must attend a three-day safety school that provides information and resources for effectively leading the safety process at their facilities, McWhorter says. In one of the classes, “How to Give an Effective Safety Meeting,” managers and supervisors are subjected to two ineffective safety meeting scenarios, then they weigh in with critiques. During one scenario, the managers sit and watch a safety video with no discussion or interaction afterward. They end up sleepy and disengaged, McWhorter says. In the other scenario, they listen to the presenter recite a DJJ safety policy word for word. “It goes for three minutes but feels like it lasts a lifetime,” he says. After experiencing these less-than-ideal training approaches for themselves, the supervisors and managers brainstorm ways to make presentations more engaging. They then work in groups to prepare a safety meeting they present to the class.

ISRI member companies can also access training resources from ISRI’s safety team, which offers train-the-trainer courses on operating material handlers and powered industrial vehicles, says Tony Smith, ISRI’s director of safety outreach. Employees who want to work on their speaking and presentation skills outside of work have some other options, such as joining a local Toastmasters chapter, he says.

Not every scrapyard has the time or resources to send its employees to a safety school, but Smith says presenters can improve their meetings by simply putting themselves in their audience’s shoes. “Figure out what it would take for you to learn the material,” he says.

Vary the medium

Just as your employees have different presentation styles, they also have different learning styles. Some might retain information better when given a handout with a short list of bullet points on which they can take notes, while others might be more visual learners who will get more out of watching a brief video and answering questions afterward, Smith says. When holding safety meetings in a breakroom or classroom setting, consider mixing up the presentation to include a variety of elements, such as a quick question-and-answer session, a checklist or quiz, or a group discussion of facility-specific incidents or near misses. You can cue up a PowerPoint presentation to convey details, but keep it short and limit the text to avoid what Smith and others call “death by PowerPoint,” where employees zone out when overwhelmed with a large block of text. Quality over quantity is always the key, he says.

Several safety managers say they like to kick off meetings with a safety-related headline from the news or even a YouTube video that shows an accident or a relevant how-to tip. Yet they have mixed feelings about using longer videos in training because they can have mixed results. Juan Gomez, general manager of W. Silver Recycling (Donna, Texas), stays away from safety videos at all costs. They kill employees’ motivation and focus, he says. “It goes back to their experience in grade school, when the teacher put in a video and it was their cue to go into La La Land.” McWhorter agrees videos can cause employees to go into “autopilot mode,” but he says a short film or news clip might be a great visual aid if used sparingly. It should “never be used as the sole means of training,” he says. “Preview the video and identify spots to pause for discussion.”

If presenters need a short, clear handout to accompany a meeting or toolbox talk, Cirone recommends signing up for ISRI’s Safety Point e-newsletter, which covers a variety of timely and seasonal safety topics in the form of one-page handouts, and Geared Up for Safety, which addresses driver safety. Recent topics have included tire safety, hot work safety, blind spots, and inclement weather driving. (E-mail Elly Torabian at to sign up.)

Better than using a video, handout, quiz, or PowerPoint presentation is using more than one medium in each meeting. Presenters who switch up their teaching methods engage different parts of employees’ brains. “If people remember 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear, 50 percent of what they see and hear, and 90 percent of what they say and do, why not structure a safety meeting to hit the high mark?” McWhorter says.

These multiple-medium presentations have another benefit, Smith adds: They help employees who might have learning disabilities, speak English as a second language, or just need extra time for the information to sink in. Smith, who has taught safety courses in scrapyards for 18 years, uses short quizzes in some safety trainings to get a sense of how well employees retain new information, but he makes sure to offer it in writing and read it out loud. That’s because employees use plenty of excuses to get out of training they think might expose a learning problem such as dyslexia. “One common excuse is, ‘Oh, I can’t read this because I forgot my glasses,’” he says. “That’s when we’ll just do the quiz verbally.”

Employees also might resist safety training by saying they have worked in the industry for a long time and don’t want to waste time on things they already know. In one case, Smith followed up with a particularly resistant worker “who wanted nothing to do with the training” but who privately revealed he had trouble reading. “So I went out and hung out with him around the machine and had him show me hands-on” that he understood the characteristics of the machine and knew how to operate it safely, Smith says.

Watch the training in action

Hands-on training is a critical piece of any safety program, these experts agree. It gives supervisors the chance to watch their employees in action and identify what they are doing well and what they need to work on. During ISRI’s Safety Stand-Down Day last June 15, when companies shut down their operations for an hour to provide safety training, many of them used the time to give hands-on training on how to give CPR, use a fire extinguisher, or identify hazards while walking through the facility. The next stand-down day is coming up June 14—that’s a good time for scrapyards to think about making their safety talks interactive, Cirone says. “Adults learn by doing, so the key is getting the employee involved,” she says.

Hands-on training can be used in conjunction with classroom training and toolbox talks to reinforce safety messages in different ways, McWhorter says. “Most [of our] safety training topics have a classroom component, but key points are reinforced via hands-on practice in the field.” When discussing machine guarding, for example, DJJ employees go over the particulars using a PowerPoint in the classroom, “but the team will then walk through their work areas to identify guarding applications and verify all existing guarding meets the requirements,” he says. These walk-throughs also allow them “to look for opportunities for improvement.”

Follow up

Safety discussions don’t end after the safety meeting, Jacoby says. In fact, it’s critical to follow up with employees to make sure they heard the safety message loud and clear and can apply it to their daily work. “A real safety program is more than just saying ‘Hey, be careful today,’” he says. Follow-ups can uncover misunderstandings that might lead to safety hazards. They also help identify areas that need another training run-through, he says.

Follow-ups can take many forms: Supervisors might decide to give an in-class quiz, either written or spoken depending on the crowd and its language proficiency. “The question is, were you engaged? Can you [repeat] back what you learned?” Smith says. Yet follow-ups don’t have to be formal, he adds. “I can catch you on shift when you need to perform maintenance and say, ‘Let’s see you perform the [lock-out/tag-out] steps.’”

It’s important to test employees’ skills, but make sure not to create an environment where they fear they’ll be punished for minor mistakes, says John Korey, W. Silver Recycling’s senior vice president. That company’s seven facilities focus on one safety topic, such as hazmat situations, for an entire month. Employees discuss the topic during weekly safety meetings, then they go through a coaching period where supervisors take note of how employees apply the safety topic to their work. “Part of coaching is that interaction with the employee, asking some probing questions and having them demonstrate their understanding in a fear-free environment,” Korey says. “A lot of times, they didn’t know what they were doing was incorrect.”

W. Silver Recycling’s Gomez says this follow-up strategy “enabled us to not only correct safety issues immediately, but we have been able to see areas of improvement” and brainstorm new processes for eliminating hazards, he says.

Follow-ups aren’t just a time to point out faults and correct errors, safety experts say. “Be sure to commend good behavior,” Jacoby says. It might also be an opportunity to motivate employees with a reward. Some scrapyards ask employees to nominate each other for safety awards, or they give employees perks for modeling good safety behavior. During some safety meetings at DJJ, for example, one of the plant managers asks three questions related to the previous week’s safety meeting. Employees write the answers and their names on index cards. The cards of those who answer all three questions correctly are put in a box for an occasional gift card drawing.

Make it personal

It’s important to show employees that you care and trust them to do a good job, so a reward or a simple “good job” goes a long way, Gomez says. Employees can tell when your safety program is motivated only by rules and regulations, not by a genuine desire to create and sustain a safe work environment, he says. A positive attitude and a personal connection are more than just nice things to do—they’re ways to really drive home the safety message. The person leading the safety program “should have passion. When you say ‘Safely or not at all,’ do you mean it? If you truly care, and they truly feel the company cares, that’s when you see the most positive results,” Gomez says.

Jacoby suggests adding personal touches to safety meetings, such as creating a “Why I Work Safe” bulletin board. All of Schnitzer’s facilities have a board like this, he says. “It has family pictures from all the facility employees. Our goal is to ensure that safety is seen as a shared value so that people want to work safe, not have to work safe. The family pictures are a constant reminder of this ideal,” he says.

Cirone says this personal connection can come into play when crafting safety meetings. When talking about possible scrapyard hazards, invite employees to point out examples specific to their facility, not just the industry. When discussing near misses, “use the near misses from your location” as a conversation starter, Cirone says. “You have to make it relevant to their life.”

Gomez says this personalization strategy helps create an environment where “no one is the boss” when it comes to safety, meaning everyone is in charge of creating a safe work environment. He drives that message home during safety meetings, and he is pleased to see employees have taken it to heart. “My team once kicked me off the floor for not having a safety vest on. I simply forgot to put it on,” he says. The team member who reminded him “was not a manager or a safety professional, and he was not my supervisor or lead. He was a team member who saw a safety infraction and corrected it.”

Jacoby also recommends that “the boss” participate in occasional safety meetings, too—not as the presenter, but as the student. “These meetings are usually [run] by mid-level management reporting to [someone] akin to a general manager. … That general manager has to be an occasional participant,” he says. “How else would [the boss] gauge the effectiveness of a [safety meeting] if they never show up at one?”

Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap.

  • 2017
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