Speak Up/Listen Up

By Becky Burks

brandon-and-james When’s the best time to hear from one of your co-workers about a safety issue? Before it turns into an accident. Notice the phrasing in that first sentence. “From one of your co-workers.” That important distinction is key to the sense of ownership that lies at the heart of the Speak up/Listen up safety training program. AEC employees recently went through the training as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen the Co-op’s culture of safety. Safety & Environmental Coordinator Linda Wilson sees great benefits in an approach that depends upon what might be thought of as a continuous safety conversation. “The idea is to make it easy and natural for folks to bring up the subject of safety performance within the course of their work,” she says. “This type of peer coaching has some distinct advantages over a more traditional method that involves having someone in an oversight role ‘correct’ you for a violation of rules.”

Certified Safety Professional Mike Simmons couldn’t agree more. As Job Training & Safety Coordinator with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Murfreesboro, Simmons spent time a few weeks ago sharing the Speak Up/Listen up message (a version customized for utility workers) with AEC employees. “The purpose of this training,” he says, “is to help give them a comfort level when it comes to sharing constructive criticism—the courage and confidence they need in order to approach one of their buddies with a word of caution. And it’s just as important to emphasize the need for an open mind on the receiving end of the message. If a co-worker says a word to you about something they’ve observed, you need to respond with the same kind of care and respect they’ve expressed when bringing the issue to your attention. If you can keep in mind that their purpose in saying something is because they don’t want you to get hurt, that puts things into perspective.”

mike-teaching Speak up/Listen up does not replace AEC’s existing safety program; instead, it is a great resource for reinforcing the basics of what we already do and why we do it. It doesn’t seek to turn employees into the “safety police.” It’s not about teaching folks how to be safe and you’re not out there looking to catch one of your coworkers doing something wrong. It’s designed to teach effective communication skills that can be applied to workplace safety issues. There is no “completion date” involved; the Speak Up/Listen up concept is about safety culture change. “If it works the way we intend for it to,” says Line Foreman Brad Watson, “these kinds of conversations will just get easier to have. No one will hesitate to speak up and no one will feel funny about having been spoken to. We’ll all just stay focused on the overall goal, which is to work safe and get home to our families every night.”

The half-day training that Co-op employees received emphasized the fact that safety is everyone’s responsibility. Sometimes, you’ll be the one doing the pointing out; the next time, one of your co-workers may be calling something to your attention. Regardless of who’s got the most seniority or where you are in the grand scheme of things, you have just as much of a right—and responsibility—as the next person, when it comes to having that safety conversation. Accountability is a big part of the Speak up/ Listen up concept. “It’s not enough to just mention a safety issue to someone,” says Simmons. “What you want to do is first ask permission to bring up a safety concern. Mutual respect is essential for both the sharing and receiving of safety messages. You’re seeking both an agreement and a commitment: an acknowledgement that, yes, there’s an issue that needs addressing and that steps will be taken to correct the situation. Once that’s been established, it’s up to the person who initiated the conversation to follow up— sometimes, more than once. They need to check in, see that corrective action has been taken, and close that loop. That way, no further—or formal—measures need to be implemented. No one gets punished for a violation of rules and the accident that might otherwise have occurred never happens.”

jeff-and-kim AEC General Manager Greg Williams was intrigued when he first learned about the Speak Up/Listen Up program at a TECA-sponsored managers meeting held early this spring: “The emphasis on communications was very different and it sounded like something worthwhile,” he says. “I was impressed by the fact that it was targeted specifically to be relevant to outside utility crews and not some generic industrial safety training.” He says it’s important to understand that we’re not bringing this initiative to the Co-op because we have problems with our safety program. The fact that AEC has one of the lowest worker mod rates among cooperatives in the state is a testament to our success. “We all recognize that we do safety pretty well here,” he explains, “and I’m very proud of that. But there’s always room for improvement and bringing a fresh perspective to the subject seems likely to be helpful.” “AEC is the first cooperative in Tennessee to take full advantage of the Speak up/Listen up program by conducting on-site implementation/training,” says Wilson. “With the support of our Employee Safety Committee and our Board Safety Committee, we continue to train and equip ourselves to be a leader in this area. Safety can’t be something we only start to think about when we perceive that a situation is ‘dangerous’ or when an inspection is occurring,” says Wilson. “It has to be top-of mind all day, every day.

The Speak up/Listen up program works so well because it’s built around the presumption that the people in the best position to observe—and do something about—potential safety issues are those that are out there doing the work together.” Simmons will make a return trip to the Co-op before the end of the year, to guide us through some role-playing exercises designed to help us overcome both the reluctance some people have in providing constructive feedback and the tendency of others to sometimes get bogged down in either who’s delivering the message or the method of delivery. “These are barriers that can be overcome,” says Simmons. “And the easiest way to do that is to practice. If peer-to-peer safety conversations become a habit here at AEC, there’s every reason to believe that what is already a very successful program by any measure can become even more effective.”