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Tracking Communication as a Performance Measure


The Industry’s Health and Safety Requirements Are Evolving and New Tools Are Needed.

By Emily J. Haas and Joseph McGuire

Consistent communication that works well has been shown to contribute to financial gains of a company as well as enhance its reputation (Kaplan & Norton, 2004). Within many workplaces, communication has been continuously encouraged as an effective mechanism to enhance workers’ awareness of safety and their appropriate response to risks (Clarke, 2003; Griffin & Neal, 2000). So much so that many health and safety management programs, such as the CoreSafety program developed by the National Mining Association (NMA), includes responsibility, accountability, communication and collaboration as core elements of practice (NMA, 2014).

Despite specific calls for more transparent communication in mining programs and trainings, research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has shown a perceived lack of accountable communication between managers and workers (Haas, 2019). With little research being done in this area, it has been difficult to identify any sort of relationship between communication efforts and workers’ performance.

NIOSH Safety Climate Perceptions About Communication

NIOSH recently completed a safety climate survey in the mining industry where just under 2,700 hourly and salary workers responded to a variety of questions using a six-point scale. Several of these questions probed the topics of supervisor communication and coworker communication. Along with 10 other constructs measured, both supervisor and coworker communication were statistically significant predictors of workers’ proactive and compliant work practices.

A list of questions related to communication, along with the response average and percentage of those who agreed with the statements, is listed below. The responses only reflect those miners who work in the sand, stone, and gravel or industrial minerals subsectors (n=2,325 workers).

Table 1. Perceptions of workers’ supervisor and coworker communication

Supervisor communication/support items

Average (6-point scale)

Agreement (%)

My supervisor helps me do my job as safely as possible

5.08

91%

My supervisor helps me if I have a health/safety problem at work

5.09

91%

My supervisor reminds me to follow H&S rules

4.98

89%

My supervisor closely monitors my H&S work practices

4.43

79%

My supervisor takes action if I don’t follow H&S work practices

4.84

88%

My supervisor clearly explains H&S rules to me

4.86

87%

My supervisor regularly informs me of work hazards specific to my job

4.63

81%

My supervisor encourages communication about H&S problems

4.88

87%

Coworker communication/support items

Average (6-point scale)

Agreement (%)

Everyone in my general work crew has confidence in each other to work safely

4.97

90%

Everyone in my general work crew helps each other with H&S problems at work

5.05

93%

Everyone in my general work crew informs each other about potential workplace H&S hazards

5.19

94%

As the table shows, overall perceptions are fairly high for supervisor communication and especially positive for coworker communication. Regarding supervisor communication, the items with the lowest averages include whether a supervisor monitors H&S work practices and supervisors informing workers of hazards specific to their job. These questions represent communication throughout the day, regarding overall safety and performance. These results indicate that more modes of communication are needed with workers as well as ways to enhance the quality of interactions, related to H&S issues.

The Industry Is Evolving and New Tools Are Needed

Seeing the importance of communication, many Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Annual Refresher Trainings (ARTs) have started to integrate skills-based practice around communication into their sessions. One company started to incorporate modules around leadership, coworker intervention, and crucial conversations several years ago (McGuire & Snead, 2017).

A common theme within one of their program element modules is “Lead by Example,” and indicates that management must ensure that workers understand their roles and responsibilities, provide resources to fulfill those responsibilities, and use appropriate tools to measure and review for continuous improvement.

In other words, only so much education and change can occur at a one-day or one-week training; new programs and methods need to be implemented and sustained beyond training. To do this, however, every worker needs to be accountable and responsible. Specifically, a way to start tracking the intangible aspects of H&S on the job – areas of intervention where leadership and communication is missing – is a critical gap faced on a daily basis.

Being Accountable to Hazard Identification and Mitigation

Communication scorecards, or checklists, were developed in response to the current research efforts to help improve communication and, consequently, the perceived safety climate. NIOSH’s current safety climate research revealed gaps, areas of potential improvement, as well as possible ways to improve communication practices (Haas, 2019; Haas et al., 2018).

To that end, NIOSH developed communication accountability scorecards to help organizations make communication management more transparent in a way that conforms to ideas behind organizational programs and processes within most generic health and safety management systems. These communication scorecards were developed using previous research about performance measurement in health and safety management (Haas & Yorio, 2016) as well as the results gleaned about communication indicators and measurement described above. Specifically, results from these safety climate surveys as well as qualitative data collected from managers and mineworkers about communication practices on site (e.g., see Haas, 2019) identified several leading indicators.

These scorecards were piloted with eight members of H&S management from three aggregate companies to ensure that the objectives, measures, and indicators were accurate ways to assess communication quantity and quality.

The pilot companies were able to verify that the intervention measures listed were common and that the communication quality indicators aligned with their overall health and safety goals. Additionally, they were able to provide feedback about ways in which they could adapt and use these communication scorecards on a daily basis to assess and measure messages that were being exchanged on site about health and safety. Using such a tool also helps make communication as a management effort more tangible.

After minor tweaks were made for consistency, three cards were created that aim to improve critical gaps identified between managers and hourly workers (i.e., visibility, consistency, and fairness) [Haas 2019]. Similar gaps such as clarity, effectiveness, responsiveness and consistency have been identified in research on other industries (Vos & Schoemaker, 2004).

Additionally, others have touted such communication scorecards as ideal (Olve et al., 2003), making this method a viable approach to assess and improve aspects of accountable communication. An example of one of these cards is provided below.

As illustrated, similar measures are offered that companies and respective workers often report, such as types of hazards identified, and whether they were mitigated or not. However, the “evaluation and action plan” within these scorecards go a step further by encouraging the documentation of what was discussed or fixed, hence, closing the communication feedback loop.

Closing these feedback loops was a significant communication barrier identified in NIOSH research (Haas, 2019), so it is hopeful that creating a way to remind managers and workers to follow-up with each other can help minimize this problem. Additionally, ways to improve communication is offered to help employees be aware of potential, ongoing improvements in communication to enhance worksite relationships and perceptions.

Does It Really Work?

In response to these tools focusing on the broad topic of communication assessment, companies are able to adapt these cards to be more specific to a health or safety issue being addressed on site to ensure that awareness, communication, and follow-up is occurring in their critical area.

As one example, a company took these cards and created a set of checklists for workers and a set for managers that was integrated into a powered haulage management plan. They labeled these cards “Plan to Eliminate and Manage Powered Haulage Accidents, Injuries and Fatalities” and included performance indicators around barriers to mobile haulage safety (e.g., inadequate berms, using conveyors to move materials, visibility, etc.), which then included communication indicators for workers and managers to discuss and mitigate.

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The successes or failures of activities or goals, outlined in the plan, are being measured by employee observations (as documented in the plan checklists); written employee surveys, employee comments or face-to-face interviews; and reviews of employee near miss reports.

The specific development of this plan is discussed in a subsequent article, to showcase how this process started during an annual refresher training and progressed to full-scale implementation into the organization’s health and safety management system. Additionally, the article shows how documenting communication methods increases workers’ accountability on the job, particularly around the area of coworker intervention if something risky is observed. Other companies have consulted these cards to help create communication topics and conversations around other H&S issues.

For copies of these cards, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Emily Haas Ph.D., is a researcher and behavioral scientist for NIOSH and Joseph McGuire Ph.D., is an independent safety and health consultant.