Research and experience prove that stories from and about real people can help make vital safety messages stick

Workers should care about safety on the job – after all, it’s their well-being and lives at stake. And yet, despite hours of training, you still see people walking around without hardhats where they’re required, being casual about entering confined spaces, taking shortcuts on trenching safety – and the list goes on.

Why don’t the messages in those videos, lectures, tailgate sessions and demonstrations sink in? Why does attention to safety always seem to slip unless managers and supervisors harp on it constantly?

Perhaps because it’s human nature to get comfortable with a familiar work environment and with everyday tasks, and to take the attitude that accidents happen to other people – “it won’t happen to me.”

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Interestingly enough, one of the most effective ways to deliver safety information is to revert to a technique often used with children: Telling stories. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found out through research with miners that stories have substantial power to deliver safety messages in memorable ways that lead to changes in behavior.

In 2005, NIOSH published a paper, Tell Me a Story: Why Stories Are Essential to Effective Safety Training. The researchers found that miners responded much better to stories told about miners, by miners, than to sterile classroom lectures and other traditional forms of training given by instructors or company executives. And so shouldn’t the same principles apply to support services employees in any area of gas, oil and mining industries?

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Why do stories work so well? The NIOSH researchers found a variety of reasons. One is that people are by nature storytellers: “Stories have been used throughout history to entertain, to inform, to provide a sense of inclusiveness...” the NIOSH paper states. In fact, the research indicates that we don’t lose our love of stories as we grow up – adults may be better listeners than children.

“Stories work at a very different level than pure information-sharing because they deal not just with rational thought, but also with how we feel about what we have heard,” the paper says. “Stories are able to move beyond the barriers people create, to touch not just our minds, but our hearts.”

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Before they will change behaviors, people need to believe that a new behavior is a better choice. “The key for a safety trainer, then, is to find the internal control switch in each trainee that responds to the ‘Why should I care about this information?’ question and provides the answer: ‘Because it makes sense for me to care. It may save my life someday.’ Stories have the ability to do this.

“One of the theories for why stories are remembered so well is that you are using your ‘whole brain’ to take in information. Stories allow a person to feel and see the information as well as factually understand it. Because you ‘hear’ the information factually, visually, and emotionally, it is more likely to be imprinted on your brain in a way that sticks with you longer with very little effort on your part.”



So if you have lessons on safety to impart to your team, consider doing so in the form of stories from one worker to another. Chances are, your people will remember more that way, and they’ll stay safer.

Meanwhile, a well-proven technique for delivering a story is the Magic Formula, created by Dale Carnegie, author of the books, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking.

In this technique, the speaker makes a case in two minutes. The first minute and 40 seconds, the speaker describes an actual incident from his or her life. In the final 20 seconds, he or she spells out what the listeners should do as a result of the lesson, and how doing that will benefit them.

Put this technique to work and see how it helps your team members’ attitudes and their safety performance.

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