Today I attended an all-hands meeting on a large construction site. It was okay — the usual stuff: a reminder about the importance of safety, words of praise for the work that’s been done, a preview of the work ahead and a plea to smoke/eat/park in the designated areas. The presentation didn’t change the world, but we appreciated the time and effort. Then the safety manager grabbed the mic: “Ok, guys, before we leave… let me hear it: what do we want this week?” Awkward silence. Nothing from the audience. The safety manager persisted: “C’mon! Let me hear you! What do we want this week!?” Ugh. Clearly we needed to say something before he’d let us leave. A few desultory and tentative shouts went up: “Be safe!” “Housekeeping!” “Quality!” “Production!” “Safety!” The safety manager wasn’t satisfied: “Holy cow, guys — you know this: we want ZERO! Now, let me hear you: what do we want this week!?” Enough of us clued in and called out a tepid response, “Zero!” And then we filed out. In that awkward moment, my feelings about the meeting changed abruptly. I went from feeling mildly grateful and appreciated to pissed-off and resentful. My takeaway from the meeting wasn’t “zero”… it was closer to “screw that guy.” A plea to safety cheerleaders:
  1. Don’t. Just… stop. Please. If you’re handed a microphone and asked to speak about safety, don’t go for call-and-response pep-rally cheers. Instead say, “Thank you. Thank you for working safely… thank you for looking after yourself and your teammates… Please keep it up. Without you, we can’t do this.”
  2. Don’t say “zero”. Don’t talk about how many days it’s been since someone got hurt, or the injury rate for last month. The minute you say “zero” I think you’re more worried about your number than you are about me. Instead say, “What matters most around here is each of us going home to our families… our goal is that no one gets hurt… that none of your spouses get a call saying to meet you at the hospital… that we never have to pass the hat to pay for your funeral or support your kids. We care about safety because we care about you.”
  3. Don’t talk about the things you don’t want. Instead of talking about injuries and incidents last month, talk about success stories — folks who spoke up, stopped work and saved a co-worker; talk about the hazards folks identified and how they’ve been eliminated; talk about the crews that worked together — despite being from different trades or companies — to make sure a job got done without incident. Point us where you want us to go.
Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon who does’t like people telling him what to shout and when. But maybe we could all benefit from speaking sincerely, authentically and constructively about safety and why it’s important to us. Safety is created by, with and through people… so knock if off with the “zero” stuff. About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at