Engagement is key to success

When working towards an improved safety culture within an organisation, engagement is essential

In my previous column, I spoke about developing a good safety culture in the workplace. As mentioned, a good safety culture requires so much more than simply achieving milestones relating to a set of safety indicators. In fact, there are a number of elements that need to be in place before one can truly boast a good safety culture!

In this article, I am going to tackle one of the important aspects to consider when striving for an improved safety culture – the art of engagement.

Family situation

I would like to use the example of how most families do and do not address issues in their private lives. For example, imagine a parent receiving a call from the headmaster of the school attended by their ten year old daughter, informing them that their child was caught smoking at school together with three friends.

The headmaster further explains that such behavíour will not be tolerated; making it clear that should it happen again the children involved would be expelled from the school.

The parent then informs the headmaster that when the child returns home from school in the evening the issue would be addressed.

Without doubt, when addressing the concern as a family, the parents and the child would engage in discussions in order to ensure clear understanding of the events, as well as agreeing on the way forward.

The objective would be to understand the reasons for smoking (for example peer pressure) and whether it was it a once-off behaviour, or whether it occurred regularly. The parents would also engage in a discussion to explain the health hazards of smoking, the ultimatum of being expelled from the school and, finally, come to an agreement and obtain a commitment from their child that she would refrain from smoking again.

The parents would probably engage with the parents of the other children involved to address the problem together in order to obtain common understanding from all three children that the behavíour could not continue and any peer pressure had to stop.

In the family environment there would be no written procedures to prevent a recurrence, or PowerPoint presentations, checklists or the provision of training or retraining. The essence is engagement and obtaining an understanding by all, together with agreement and commitment going forward.

This approach has worked among families for thousands of years. It is, therefore, rather surprising that leaders in the workplace do not follow the same approach. It works in our private lives, so why not follow the same principle at work? In the workplace we tend to tell and instruct and do not engage enough with the teams.

Typical safety “toolbox” talks

During a number of recent training sessions that we conducted at one of our operations, we split the attendees into a number of groups, giving them a topic to use as a safety talk or toolbox talk. They were then required to present the safety talk to the wider group. Each attendee then rated the safety talk using a number of categories including whether it:

• covered the critical elements;

• would make a difference in understanding of the topic;

• added value to the audience; and

• promoted engagement between the presenter and the audience.

Not surprisingly, the scores of the wider group were low for three of the four items above, with the exception being critical elements discussed.

It is not uncommon in industry for leaders to conduct safety talks by reading the document and explaining what is required. They then believe that the contents have been understood and that the time spent has ensured buy-in and will make a difference.

Often toolbox talks are treated as a “tick box” exercise and are conducted only because it is a requirement by the company, or even local legislation. The approach is, therefore, “let’s get this done so that we can start the work”. This approach is absolutely absurd. It adds no value and is a waste of time, effort and money.

Obviously, toolbox talks are an important part of the puzzle in providing a safe working environment and in the drive to send everyone home safely at the end of the day. However, doing it properly and steering away from a telling approach to a two-way communication and engagement approach would bring much needed value to these talks.

Engaging with the teams and achieving buy-in and commitment

If we followed the same approach at the workplace as provided above with regard to the natural way family members have engaged with each other for thousands of years, safety discussions (including toolbox talks) would, without doubt, add more value.

Good engagement ensures group involvement and collective discussions during safety talks, during general discussions, when developing a new initiative, or when addressing certain concerns. Engagement with the relevant people improves understanding of the message, idea, or even an incident that is being discussed.

By conducting good engagement sessions when developing a new initiative, this allows the individuals and collective teams to provide their comments and suggestions during the development stage. Spending sufficient time in effective engagement makes the roll-out of the initiative and achieving buy-in from the employees so much easier.

Preventing repeat incidents

An important aspect of all health and safety programmes is learning from incidents and ensuring suitable actions are implemented to prevent any repeats.

In order to achieve this, most companies have a “Safety Alert” or “Incident Notice” initiative as part of their overall safety communication programme. These explain the key things learnt from the respective incidents, as well as key action items to reduce the risk and probability of experiencing the incident again.

In the organisation at which I work, these incident notices (in our case) are distributed to all our operations that potentially have the same risks. The requirement is that the first-line managers (supervisors) are required to use the incident notice to share the details of the incident with their respective teams.

By just reading the details of the incident, as well as key contributing factors and actions developed by the site where the incident occurred, will not have an impact. It will not ensure clear understanding and will more than likely not prevent the occurance of a similar incident at the site.

To ensure maximum benefit and to support the objective of preventing repeat incidents, it is important that an engagement session is conducted to ensure a clear understanding of the incident, and then to agree what similar risks exist that could cause a similar incident, and, finally, as a group agree on suitable actions and or commitments to prevent similar incidents occurring at a later stage.

The employees and contractors who attended the session will leave with a clearer understanding of the incident, and will most probably have bought into the agreed actions and commitments, as they would have participated in finding the solutions. This will contribute immensely to a safer working environment for all.

Management site walkabouts and audits

The same principle applies to management site walkabouts and audits. As part of lead indicators, many companies require their managers to visit the shop floor at defined frequencies to focus on safety and health-related matters.

Often the focus is on conditions and behaviours. They then share their observations with those in the work area, or at supervisory level. The question is: how many of them include open and transparent discussions with those on the shop floor?

The benefit and impact of management safety-focus walkabouts could be greatly increased if the focus was engaging with employees and contractors during these walkabouts.


Engagement is key to the success of our efforts to provide a safe working environment. Leaders need to do a lot less telling and a lot more listening if they want their efforts to add value. The more time spent during the development stage of, for example, initiative controls and action items, the less time will be required to ensure a successful roll out.

Let’s change from safety talks to safety engagement sessions, during which there is two-way communication and engagement on the topic being discussed. Obtaining commitment and buy-in will follow, and the time spent will add value to those attending, as well as to the company as a whole.

Let’s change our lead indicators by moving our leadership teams from safety walkabouts to safety-engagement walkabouts, and training and coaching them to engage with their respective teams.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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