Marlin Q&A with Patrick J. Karol, CSP, ARM, SMS, CIT
Marlin workplace digital signage content goes beyond rote safety reminders, always acknowledging that there’s more to safety than just regulations and repetition. So when we saw safety consultant, author and speaker Pat Karol discussing similar concepts at safety conferences and in his online videos, we simply had to share his thoughts with our audience in this Q&A.
Q: You recently produced a satirical video that reenacts a workplace safety meeting. This includes the portrayal of a manager who is doing the bare minimum to get through boring safety messaging. How common of an occurrence do you feel this really is? And why does this happen?
A: The video reflected my experience, and of course I attempted to use a bit of humor to emphasize a point about how we can communicate more effectively about safety. I certainly don’t have any empirical data on how common it is, but it does exist in varying degrees. I do training and give presentations at a different location every month, and it’s clear that many trainees have very low expectations for their training and safety in general. The problem often stems from how safety is managed and more specifically when and how it is discussed. If the only time employees hear about safety is after an incident or during that once-a-year mandatory OSHA training, then safety will come across as a negative. The opposite can be true, too. If employees hear “safety, safety, safety” every day, it can get monotonous and boring. That’s why I encourage anyone with safety responsibilities to take the word “safety” out of their vocabulary and define it in operational or actionable terms.
Q: You often emphasize the need to make safety personal. How important is this? And is this difficult to do?
A: Successful safety managers understand that there are two components that are really important. There’s a technical component that establishes our credibility and opens doors to conversations about safety. And then there’s the soft skills component. These are the skills that allow us to influence change. Foremost is the ability to make safety personal. That means making a connection between safety and what employees want most. It’s about building relationships and explaining how safety can help others achieve their goals. It’s difficult in the sense that it is not black and white like the technical side. It takes persistence, consistency and staying on your message, which should emphasize the value you bring to the organization and the employee group.
Q: Marlin digital signage customers count on visual safety messaging to grab attention and help with message retention. Can you describe some examples of visual safety communications that work very well?
A: Safety is very visual. I use the example of Moe in my book and presentations. Moe represents the everyday laborer. He could be a machinist, a welder or an assembly line worker. When Moe is not at work, he likes to fish. It’s his passion and hobby. Imagine a poster of Moe standing in a stream with his waders on, holding his fishing rod, and his son standing next to him holding a beautiful rainbow trout. Moe has a great big smile on his face as he looks at his son. His son has a look of disbelief and astonishment at his good fortune to make such a catch. At the bottom of the poster the caption reads, “This is why I lock out my equipment.” That’s visual, that’s impactful, that’s making safety personal.
Q: Your book Selling Safety: Lessons from a Former Front-Line Supervisor points out that safety should be positive. Does that also apply to the communications managers use for safety? For example, does that mean never showing negative consequences of safety failures?
A: Not at all. Fear can be a motivator. Besides, workers should know the risk and potential consequences of failing to follow procedures or training techniques. Making safety a positive means emphasizing the benefits of your safety program. Unfortunately, many employees, supervisors and operations managers view safety as something we have to do. They cast safety in a negative light when the focus is on violations, investigations, compliance and mandatory training. Often, as I depict in my videos, supervisors perpetuate a negative image of safety by what they say, how they sound and even how they look when they discuss safety. It is also important to note that relying on fear alone can be impactful, but short term. It should always be accompanied by actions needed to prevent the fear-causing situation. In addition, I never encourage the use of graphic photos.
Q: COVID-19 has challenged many organizations when it comes to workplace safety. What advice can you offer to safety managers who still need to communicate safety basics in the midst of the pandemic?
A: It is challenging, but it’s also an opportunity for safety managers to take a leadership role. View this situation as an opportunity to shine and to display your expertise. Our job in the safety profession is to ensure organizational leaders and employees understand the risk and make recommendations. All levels of the organization will look to us for guidance. There is a new set of safety basics, and it’s evolving every day. Monitor the latest information and be proactive in your communications to your leaders and to the employee group. Understand it is a very dynamic situation. As the situation evolves and risk changes, don’t wait for someone to ask you for the latest. Managing risk is essential for the organization to demonstrate their resilience over the long term and ability to get back to business. You can show your value beyond safety by providing encouragement, compassion and gratitude during a time when many people are feeling anxious and stressed. Often a simple smile can change someone’s attitude as well as your own. After all, smiling is a leadership characteristic.
Q: As an hourly factory worker, then a front-line supervisor and now as a safety consultant, you’ve seen it all when it comes to workplace safety messaging. While your material points out that we do often see the same mistakes again and again, do you also see progress being made across the safety landscape? How so?
A: Without a doubt. The safety profession is growing in numbers and expertise. More colleges and universities have safety curriculums today than ever before. ASSP provides great resources to learn and network. In addition, OSHA, NIOSH and the CDC provide valuable information. This is all having a positive impact on workplace safety. It’s analogous to the “zero” debate. Can we prevent every injury and achieve “zero”? Some believe it is possible, others don’t. I’ve been on both sides of that debate. The fact that we are having that debate is an indication of how far we have come in the last 30 years, when all we were talking about was compliance with OSHA regulations.
About Patrick J. Karol, CSP, ARM, SMS, CIT
Pat’s work in the safety field began as a front-line supervisor with safety as a collateral duty and now involves advising senior leaders on strategies to reduce risk. His experience includes over 20 years in the corporate safety departments of two Fortune 200 companies and the Federal government. Pat currently works as an independent safety and health consultant specializing in strategic safety planning, safety leadership workshops and motivational speaking. For more information, visit www.karolsafety.com.