We’re all familiar with the chestnut “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” My grandparents were a bottomless fount of idioms like this, but if you haven’t had the privilege, the meaning is this: people set in their ways resist change and may be beyond changing.
Here’s another bit of wisdom for you, and one that is worth accepting at the outset: people don’t like talking about safety. Often, the longer someone has been in the industry, the less they want to talk about it.
Safety, both as a profession and as a set of procedures, is still relatively new. Some experienced workers come from a time when safety was an almost meaningless set of bureaucratic checklists and documents that could collect dust in a site trailer. And some of them liked it that way.
Not so long ago a welder would just spend their work hours welding, a machine operator operating, a roofer roofing. Some of them perceive the addition of paperwork, talks, meetings, training, testing, and oversight as a time-wasting grind. They're production-oriented people who have spent a long time believing that these extra tasks aren't real work.
Here’s the tricky bit. As technical workers, it isn’t their job to grasp the soft benefits of loss prevention and proactive safety. As a safety professional, it’s yours!
It’s a worthy pursuit too, considering workers over age 55 are nearly twice as likely to suffer a fatal injury at work than their younger counterparts. The experienced subset of workers needs extra safety protection and attention whether they want it or not.
So how do you deal with these persistent, stubborn and well-worn attitudes? Here are six key strategies.
1. Be Respectful
These workers have put in countless hours honing their craft. They know it inside-out and backwards. It’s important to overcome the perception that you’re trying to tell them how to do their job.
Instead, ask questions. Lots of them. Ask them how they’ve seen safety done in their long and storied career, what they would recommend and how to get others to use hazard controls. You may be able to gain the benefit of their help in “enforcing” controls if you give them some ownership over them.
2. Be Assertive
The "old dog" moniker is apt in more than one way. Take an aggressive posture with a riled-up dog and you might get bitten - run and you will get chased.
Assertiveness is key. Work hard to overcome the appearance that you're a "Safety Cop" by not making threats, avoiding fights and anger, and diffusing tense situations with a calm demeanor.
3. Don't Be a Doormat
That being said, if you ask for something to be done, it must be done or there will be consequences.
I don’t believe in yelling, demeaning, or making an example of people - I think that approach yields worse behavior in the long run. Instead, disciplinary action should be structured, objective, decided upon beforehand, and have formal management support (i.e. a signed policy).
4. Be a Teammate
Show that you care about more than discipline and compliance. Show that you're there to help.
Maybe you can advocate for upgraded equipment or tools or help actively address problems as a liaison with management.
Ultimately, you won’t know exactly how to offer proactive help unless you ask the workers. So ask them.
5. Take the Hits
Don’t worry too much if they don’t like or respect you.
This is tough for some younger safety professionals because it’s easy to be intimidated by seasoned workers. They may even make an active effort to undermine your authority, openly mock you and your profession, and defy your requests out of sheer disrespect.
This is most challenging of all, because many senior workers are in a sort of tenured position and managers might be unwilling to let them go. The only recourse in this situation is to be proactive and anticipate this possibility beforehand.
6. Rely on a Structured System
Implement a system to deal with such problems before they occur. Should disciplinary action be needed, it should follow an orderly structure and have management commitment before the friction starts.
That way, discipline becomes a matter of following agreed-upon policy and less of a personal conflict.
If you can’t get management to follow the policies they have laid out and agreed to, then the problem is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article.
Get Everyone on Board
I've numbered these strategies for a reason - the order is relevant. Give cooperation a chance before going to discipline and you may find that the latter steps aren’t needed. That said, a gentle reminder for all workers that there is an enforced disciplinary policy in place is worthwhile. But give those reminders without pointing fingers at individuals.
These strategies are well known to managers because it all boils down to leadership skills. The concepts are somewhat abstract, but they've been field tested in over a century of industry operations. Respect is the key overreaching concept. Respect is the grease that can ease the grinding gears back into motion. Make a worker feel respected and cooperation should follow. Offer respect to others, and expect it for yourself.