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Crucial Conversations Lead to Improved Safety

By Randy Logsdon

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart spoke for many of us when he used the phrase, “I know it when I see it,” in connection with a case before the high court that was attempting to define a test for pornography. Similarly, we may find it hard to define a “good safety attitude” and conversely a “poor safety attitude,” but we know it when we see it.

It seems that in practicing safety, we tend to focus on the negative – what’s wrong; as opposed to the positive – what’s right. So, it’s not surprising that an interesting bit of research can help us more objectively define, or at least recognize certain negative behaviors that we might attribute to a “poor safety attitude.”

The Study
Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield published their findings in the August 2011 issue of Professional Safety – a publication of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). The article, entitled Five Crucial Conversations That Drive Workplace Safety was based on a research document produced by VitalSmarts entitled Silent Danger – Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Workplace Safety.

The 2009 study involved on-site interviews and focus groups with 130 employees at all levels covering eight companies. The initial phase was verified through a survey of 1,500 employees, also at all levels across 22 different organizations. The focus was on what the authors termed “five workplace threats that are likely to persist as ‘undiscussables’ in safety-conscious organizations.” These threats had earlier been identified in a study that involved 1,600 employees across 30 companies.

One of the astonishing findings was that 93 percent of the employees reported that their workgroup is at risk from at least one of the five threats or “accidents waiting to happen” and close to half were aware of an injury or death caused by one of these threats.

The solution for us is not in recognizing these situations – they are easily recognized. The solution is in speaking up, initiating that “crucial conversation.”

The Five
The research team looked for telltale signs of these threats and found that these signs combined three elements of a risk assessment. The first two (frequency and severity) were expected. The third was that the risks were considered “undiscussable.” A descriptor was attached to each of the five threats. Now, not only can we recognize it when we see it (Justice Stewart), but we can now define it and act on it – by speaking up.

  1. Get it Done.
  2. Undiscussable Incompetence.
  3. Just This Once.
  4. This is Overboard.
  5. Are You a Team Player?

Get it Done
It could be using the wrong tool, penetrating a barrier, running down the stairs, standing on a chair, working the circuit live, or any of a thousand potential safety shortcuts. Motivation may come from a variety of sources. The rewards: getting the job done early or on-time, reduced physical effort, and praise from the supervisor for getting it done.


  • 78 percent of workers see coworkers taking unsafe shortcuts.
  • 19 percent know of an injury or death caused by the shortcut.
  • Only 25 percent report that they speak up and voice their concerns.
  • For 75 percent, risky shortcuts are undiscussable.

Undiscussable Incompetence
Unlike the previous sign, these are cases where the person is unaware of the risk. The “incompetence” may be from a lack of experience, knowledge or training. It can also be the result of misinformation or incomplete information. Sometimes we don’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know. Here’s an opportunity for someone with “competence” to speak up and prevent an injury.


  • 65 percent of workers see coworkers create unsafe condition through incompetence.
  • 18 percent know of an injury or death caused by the condition created.
  • Only 26 percent report that they speak up and voice their concerns.
  • For 74 percent, incompetence is undiscussable.

Just This Once
Similar to “Get it Done” except that one would normally not take the short cut. Something outside is influencing the decision. It may be a consensus decision. Regardless, we know that there is an elevated risk, but we’re willing to take our chances with luck, fate, chance and probability that nothing will go wrong. We’ll likely never do this again. Right?


  • 55 percent of workers see coworkers making these risky exceptions.
  • 18 percent know of an injury or death caused by the exception.
  • Only 25 percent report that they speak up and voice their concerns.
  • For 75 percent permitting this one exception is undiscussable.

This is Overboard
We can all cite what we believe are stupid rules, or rules that only apply to inexperienced personnel – the other guy. We know of rules that are an overreaction to an unfortunate event, but know in our hearts that those events are unlikely to ever materialize again. We know of rules that, for those very reasons, are institutionally ignored. Yet, just how difficult is it to comply?


  • 66 percent of workers see coworkers ignore safety rules.
  • 22 percent actually know of a serious injury or death caused by ignoring safety rules.
  • Just over 25 percent report that they speak up and voice their concerns.
  • For nearly 75 percent response to this behavior is undiscussable.

Are You a Team Player?
One thing that athletics has taught us ­is that there is respect for the player who is willing to sacrifice for the team. We sometimes accept that extra risk (often without outside coercion) for the good of the team. Belonging to a team is an important motivator, and by opposing the “group think” mentality of the team we risk isolation from the team.


  • 63 percent of workers see coworkers take a risk for the good of the team, company or customer.
  • 17 percent know of an injury or death caused by the risk.
  • Only 28 percent report that they speak up and voice their concerns.
  • For 72 percent, taking one for the team is undiscussable.

Now What?
While being able to recognize these five threats is a great start, the real potential for accident prevention lies in the response. Two things must occur:

  1. When one of these moments occurs, people have to be willing to speak up.
  2. The “crucial conversation” that develops must be effective in preventing the risky behavior.

Interestingly, the second can lead to the first. Doctors and nurses were asked why they did not speak up when they witnessed colleagues putting patients’ lives at risk. One of the responses was that they did not know how to speak up effectively – intimidation.

When supervisors and employees have developed skills and feel comfortable voicing a real concern, they are more likely to speak up rather than stand by as the authors describe: “holding their breath,” “feeling tortured as they watched,” and “not able to watch.” The witness feels agony, not apathy.

You can learn more and obtain a copy of the full report on the study at


Proper preparation by manufacturers is the goal of the Association of Equipment Manufacturer's (AEM) product safety event April 23-26, 2012. The Product Safety & Compliance Seminar focuses on issues involved in design, manufacture, compliance and safe use of products, and the Product Liability Seminar helps attendees more effectively participate in products litigation.

The product safety and compliance seminar is April 23-25 and the liability seminar is April 26, both at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Ill.

Back by popular demand is a hands-on workshop, "Fundamentals: Building on the Cornerstone of Product Safety." The workshop includes a series of interactive peer exercises with emphasis on information leveling techniques, applied safety risk assessment, risk abatement alternatives, and communicating issue-mitigation information. The workshop reinforces concepts outlined in an optional opening course, "The Cornerstone of Product Safety."