The Value of Story-Telling

The Power of Story-Telling and Sharing in Creating a Positive Safety Culture:

It’s important to develop an organizational desire to learn from its mistakes.  This desire to learn and improve drives success.  A learning organization will value stories and the lessons they hold, particularly those related to near-miss situations. 

That’s why we are hearing more and more about successful safety programs that encourage and reward near-miss reporting.  These companies want to become aware of and learn more about what hadn’t been reported, discussed, nor corrected.

Don’t get me wrong, discussing and celebrating our successes is important too.  Success stories are usually about how something that was wrong was corrected, and lessons abound if we look for them.  But, that’s not my point in this post today.

Most everyone has heard of Charlie Morecraft.  Charlie was severely burned in a refinery incident, and now speaks worldwide sharing the horrific story.  He tells the story with great passion and details the pain he endured.   His presentations are ususally in front of supervisors and workers, focusing on the hazards of risk-taking shortcuts and complacency.  Charlie not only holds the attention of the audience, but often has a real impact on the people he speaks with.

I’ll bet that if you ask your employees to begin to share near-misses, or to discuss those close calls from the past they will have some great stories to share.  One step further would be to have anyone who has actually been injured to share their story.  It’s a great idea to ask your workers to share their stories; explaining what happened, the circumstances, their part or role if any, and the lessons they learned.  This brings safety to real life, and puts a face and name to it.

Recently, in discussing the value of stories, a insurance risk control manager told me of a repeat incident where two employees were injured while preforming nearly identical job tasks.  The incidents occurred in a laminating operation during maintenance  to clean rollers.  Lockout procedures were ignored, resulting in the first mechanic being caught in the process rollers up to his shoulder.  It was very serious, but the mechanic eventually returned to work with a 30% disability.

The company redoubled its lockout efforts and retrained all the mechanics, but within a year the second, almost identical incident occurred.  Thankfully, this time the injury sustained was less severe.

So why do incidents of this type repeat themselves?  There are books written on the subject, so I won’t try to answer it here. Rather than focus on the system issues, quality of training and supervision, and of course the cultural issues, let’s talk about “learning.”  The type of learning that encourages sharing and caring, and makes it personal.

In discussing the situation of the laminating company, I learned that they didn’t have a very good safety program.  There was little structure and most employees were left to do their job without much coaching.  The supervisors tended to be dictatorial and weren’t interested in feedback.  Safety meetings were few and far between.  I guess you could say that the environment was nearly opposite that of a “Learning Organization.”  That might give us a clue as to why the incident repeated itself.  No one learned any lessons that were ingrained throughout the organization!  How does the phrase go?  “Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.”

I’ve learned that making the safety message “personal” is an important first step in fostering a willingness to learn and share.  Asking employees to think about what’s important to them is a good starting point.  Helping them focus on what they value (family, friends, faith, good health, safety, recreation, and a purpose in life) and getting them to talk about it will be a positive factor in their acceptance of responsibility for their own safety.

Ask your employees to share near-miss stories, as well as real loss producing incidents.  Discuss their feelings about the situation and how it has either changed them or made them more cautious.  Did they tell their family about it?  How did they react?

Now, ask the other workers in the group to think of a similar situation that they might have experienced.  It could be anything, like running a yellow light and nearly hitting another car,working off the top step of a step ladder and falling but not getting injured, etc.  Discuss the situations that are shared, focusing on what the thought process was that resulted in the risky behavior.  Ask what “we” all can do to check our plan of attack, before we do anything we will regret.

Finally, ask your employees if it is OK to discuss near-misses regularly.  Gaining their permission is important.  Assuming that they say it is OK, ask each of them to come to the next safety meeting with a near-miss situation, hazard they observed, or actual incident to discuss.  With this, you set in motion the process of sharing, reporting and discussing potential loss producing situation.  The next thing you’ll know your will have established a near-miss reporting system and have become a “Learning Organization!”

I’d love to hear other ideas on how to foster the willingness to learn in your organization.  Please share!  Thanks.