The key to health and safety: Empowering your people to communicate assertively

The Dempsey Wood team graduating from Upskills training after learning to communicate assertively

the Dempsey Wood team

In a perfect world, every person on a worksite would report every incident. Every employee would confidently speak up when they see something that might be unsafe. Everyone would feel comfortable sharing their ideas on how to improve health and safety with their team, manager, and the company as a whole. Every worker would feel confident to communicate assertively in a safe, healthy workplace.

We might not be living in that world quite yet, but it’s definitely one we’re looking forward to – and one that is completely possible. First though, we need to empower people to communicate assertively.

 

Why is it so important to communicate assertively?

Having a team who don’t communicate assertively tends to play out in one (or all!) of three ways:

  1. Managers feel unsure that their staff have engaged with compliance – which can lead to some worried nights!
  2. Near misses go unreported – and since we know that the more incidents there are, the higher the likelihood that there were plenty of near misses beforehand, it’s vital that these get reported to prevent incidents.
  3. In the future, there’s likely to be an accident or incident, which could lead to an injury.

For the want of a nail, the war was lost, and for the want of understanding, health and safety often gets laid by the wayside. With regulations getting more and more stringent, and the impact significant if something does go wrong, it’s never been more important to empower your people to be assertive.

Unfortunately, simply telling someone they have permission to be assertive doesn’t suddenly make them communicate assertively (wouldn’t that be easy!). One study found that young workers in particular (and based on our experience, workers with English as a second language or low confidence) suggested that a sense of powerlessness stopped them from telling their manager about safety concerns.

Instead of simply opening the channels of communication up and assuming that your team will speak up, you need to help them understand why it’s so important to communicate assertively. Then, give them the tools to deal with different situations and learn how to speak up.

Dempsey Wood are an Auckland-based civil infrastructure company working on new build housing developments and other earthmoving projects. Let’s look at how they’re taking their team from ticking the health and safety box to assertively communicating and creating a safer workplace for everyone along the way.

 

Dempsey Wood’s health and safety journey

Several months ago, the team at Dempsey Wood realised they had a few box tickers on their hands when it came to health and safety.

“One of the big things we realised was that instead of actually reading exactly what the scope of work they’re doing was, or looking at what form they’re filling out, people were just ticking the box so they could get on with the day,” explains Kusay Bearakat, Area Manager at Dempsey Wood. “They weren’t actually considering the hazards or asking themselves if there was anything they didn’t understand.”

Recognising that health and safety is their number one priority (and that hi vis vests weren’t quite enough to cover that priority!), they engaged with the team at Upskills to help improve the team’s workplace literacy and communication skills.

 

Engaging the team with health and safety

“We used to ask, ‘Do you understand the scope of work?’ and of course the team would say yes,” says Kusay. “What Holly and the Upskills team provided wasn’t closed questions. They would use open questions like ‘Tell me what hazards you can think of’ which meant we actually knew the team understood it.”

Dempsey Wood and Upskills incorporated relevant material throughout the training, going through Dempsey Wood’s real-life health and safety documents and helping them become second nature for the team. The best part? The first set of learners are now helping out the other guys on site to do the same, becoming mentors on other sites.

 

From box ticking to assertively communicating

“Within 2-3 weeks, we were already noticing changes onsite. The guys were speaking up, they had the confidence to say ‘This is a hazard, maybe we should add it to our list.’ At our toolbox meetings, they’re now contributing more and growing in confidence,” shares Kusay.

“The biggest change is from the quiet guys, a few participants who never speak. Hearing one of them speak up at a toolbox to say ‘Watch out for birds nests in exhaust pipes’, I was very surprised to hear his voice!”

Now, Dempsey Wood are rolling out their training to the rest of the team. They recognise that health and safety doesn’t come from the site manager – it comes from the site as a whole.

“The way that I see it – anything that benefits the guys actually benefits the company as well. By having a group of guys feeling confident and looking after health and safety, they’re making sure that our sites are safe and our staff members are safe,” says Kusay.

“It’s the circle of health and safety – ensure that you’re fine, your workmates are fine, any visitors are fine and at the end of the day the company will be fine.”

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