What’s a free and rewarding tool that promotes safety?
“Open-ended questions,” says Mike Hart, Risk Director for Verst Logistics. “Surprisingly, most managers don’t use or know how to utilize these kinds of questions,” says Mike.
Hart is Vice President of Risk Management for Verst Logistics. With more than 25 years of experience, he’s improved safety operations process at three companies.
How safety managers should use open-ended questions is part of what Hart shared during an expert panel on how to engage employees to improve safety. (Hart was joined on the panel by Cathleen Snyder, Director of Client Relations strategic HR Inc. and Matt Hess, Director of HR HGC Group of Companies.)
Here are the takeaways from Hart on the “free tool to promote safety.”
What Is An Open-Ended Question?
An open-ended question is a question that supports open, flowing dialogue, says Hart. They are typically any question that starts with, “Tell me.” (“Tell me about a potential hazard you see,” or “Tell me about a procedure you use…”)
Hart uses an example to show the subtle shift managers can make in conversation: If you tell someone, “Put your seatbelt on,” that person is not necessarily engaged with what you’re directing them to do. It’s similar if you tell someone the procedure they should be following.
“The problem is this person is not listening, and they are not getting feedback. If I tell you to put your seatbelt on, chances are as soon as I turn around, you are either going to flip me off, or you are going take your seatbelt off,” says Hart.
Instead, if you re-frame the situation and say, “Tell me why you wear a seatbelt,” the person you’re talking to is going to have something to talk about from their background or from their experience. It’s a shift that opens up a dialogue and creates a two-way conversation, explains Hart.
In other cases, open-ended questions include words like “how,” “what,” or “when” to spur open, meaningful conversation.
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When to Use Open-Ended Questions
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Open-ended questions are a practical tool to identify and to set expectations. They are also a tool to drive accountability.
For example, workers can be in “automatic mode” at the end of the day, increasing the chance for incidents. Knowing this, the last two hours of a shift are an ideal time to engage workers with these types of questions.
Additionally, they can be used at the start of any project to determine if a job has been effectively planned. (This is important because planning helps to reduce unforeseen events.)
“Anyone that needs to make sure employees understand expectations of the company or the project should be using open-ended questions,” adds Hart.
And If An Incident Occurs…
Last, open-ended questions are a great tool to use if an incident occurs. When seeking cause to prevent future incidents, Hart recommends starting with an open-ended question to see what happened. After asking something as simple as, “What happened?” follow-up questions could include:
- What were you doing?
- How were you doing the work?
- How was the equipment or surroundings involved?
7 Key Questions to Ask Each day
Open-ended questions are a tool to use daily, says Hart. “Ideally, open-ended questions regarding expectations should be asked daily and documented. It’s an effective way of reinforcing the right, positive behaviors.”
Hart gives 7 key questions that can be used on a daily basis to engage workers and to promote safety:
- What are the hazards around you? How will you reduce the risk?
- Tell me about a policy you will use today.
- Tell me about a procedure you will use.
- How do you plan your job?
- Tell me about leadership within the facility.
- Tell me how you and other employees accept accountability.
- Tell me about safety systems and how are they used.
Ask the questions—and then get comfortable with waiting to get your answer. “Sometimes you wait ten seconds, and it may seem like an eternity, but that time allows the other person to think. Over time, you will get used to that,” adds Hart.
“These questions create better investigations. They reinforce behaviors. They create a lot of energy and less defensiveness, especially in the union environment. Really, we are here for fact finding and not for blaming,” says Hart.
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