Safety, Learning Design, and Organizational Culture


As a learning consultant, I've been called into workplaces to do work-learning audits specifically focused on safety. Unfortunately, what I've seen too often are poor safety-learning practices. People often talk a good game of safety, but their practices are just not effective. Let me give you one example. I was at a manufacturing plant and was told that all team meetings talked about safety. However, what I saw at actual team meetings was a perfunctory exhalation about safety that was likely to have zero effect on actual safety outcomes. Seriously, many team leaders would say something pithy like "10 fingers, 10 toes" and that would be it!!

To be truly effective, safety messages have to follow the principles of all good learning design. Specifically, safety messages have to be context-based. They have to refer to actual workplace situations, and get employees to visualize and anticipate safety-critical situations and the actions that are needed in those situations. Safety messages also have to prompt employees to retrieve these situation-action links and do that in a manner that is repeated in various ways over time.

Recently, while teaching a workshop, one of the participants told a great story about how General Electric has built a set of cultural expectations that propel safety. The author–who wants to remain anonymous–wrote up the following overview of what he/she observed at GE.

I have had the pleasure to conduct training for the field service organization at GE.  One key aspect of the field service organization is safety.  A seemly simple task of lifting a heavy object with a crane can easily result in fatality by a shift in the chain causing the object to swing out of control.  During my work I was impressed with the relentless focus on safety, which was not just in words, but in action.  I thought it would be useful to share an example of how safety is built into their culture.

Each day of a training session, or any meeting for that matter, always started with a safety moment.  This discussion focused on the potential safety issues that could come up, and precautions that need to be followed.  I would start the training by having the hotel facility manager come in and cover the emergency procedures.  If I failed to start any training session in this manner, a participant would, without exception, come to me during the first break indicating that we forgot the safety briefing.  Unlike other organization where I would be asked to show a safety video, and people would count sheep until it ended, this safety briefing was seen as important to all the participants. 

At the start of each training day, and after lunch, a participant would be assigned to share a safety moment in their work that enabled someone to avoid a potential injury.  There was never a problem getting participants to accept responsibility for conducting one of these safety moments.  In fact, after sharing their experience, there was always a round of applause from the other participants.  This consistent practice, and positive reception by individuals of all levels helps to foster a strong safety culture within the organization.

In talking with the author of this observation, I was amazed at how deeply ingrained a culture of safety was in this GE environment. From this example, here are lessons learned–many of which will be relevant even to those who are not dealing with safety, but who are focused on performance-improvement in general.

  1. They focused on specific safety issues and situations.
  2. They focused on safety ubiquitiuosly, not just in training and not just when it was "safety time."
  3. People bought into the importance of safety–they didn't just go through the motions.
  4. There were expecations that safety discussions were scheduled into everything.
  5. Many people wanted to volunteer to lead safety discussions–not just people designated as safety officers.
  6. People really appreciated the safety discussions–and they showed their appreciation.
  7. Management was not the only driver of safety.
  8. Safety messages were repeated, and spaced over time.

Special thanks to the anonymous author and to GE for demonstrating that safety can be inculcated into workplace practice.