On Assertiveness
On Assertiveness

One of the most important on-going activities for a safety leader is the training of the safety team- not just training on safety regulations- but training team members how to coach employees about safety issues as they are discovered on the job. A laboratory safety professional may know and understand every safety regulation, but if they cannot effectively approach and speak to others about safety problems, their usefulness in that role wanes.

How do you speak to employees or co-workers about observed safety failures? This is one of the most difficult jobs for a safety professional in the department, and using the correct approach is critical for success in a peer coaching scenario.

Situation: John, the safety leader for the lab, witnesses Mary working in the chemistry area with open samples and no face protection. He spoke to her last week about this unsafe behavior.

Response 1: John remembers that Mary’s response to the conversation last week was uncomfortable for him. She did not take his coaching well. He decides to let it go. He can’t change her behavior anyway.

Response 2: John approaches Mary and says, “Mary, I can’t believe you are working again without face protection- especially after we argued about it last week. You need to change your actions and your attitude!”

In case you’re not sure (I hope everyone reading this is sure), neither response is appropriate. Response 1 is passive, and it accomplishes nothing. John shows no assertiveness here. Response 2 is the opposite- John shows too much assertiveness and speeds on ahead to aggression. This response is likely to be no more effective than the first. So how does John find the right level of assertiveness?

When it comes to assertiveness for the purpose of safety coaching, the path lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Assertiveness is called for, but determining the right level is important in each coaching conversation. When coaching for safety, remember to address the real issue and not to get sidetracked. Address the issue in private, and discuss whatever barriers might exist that prevent the employee from taking the correct safe action(s). It is always a good idea to end the conversation with an agreement about future behavior. Here is an example coaching session for Mary and the situation John witnessed:

“Mary, I noticed you are handling open specimens without face protection. That can result in an exposure for you. I remember we talked about that last week. Is there a reason you don’t want to use a face shield?”

“Well, John, I don’t like the counter-mounted shield because I can’t get my arms around it when I’m working, and it isn’t convenient. I would like to wear the disposable face shields, but I don’t know where they are.”

“Oh. I should have told you about that last week. We keep the box in the supply room. Since you prefer those, I think we should keep some here at the work bench.”

“That would be good.”

“Ok, Mary, if we keep them here, can we agree that you will use them whenever you’re handling open specimens?”

“Yes, John, I can do that. Thanks,”

I realize not all conversations are this easy, but this is an example approach. You’ll likely have a much better outcome by finding the right level of assertiveness for each safety situation you encounter. Avoid aggression, but don’t ignore safety situations either. Using assertiveness skills can help make the improvements you are looking for in your lab safety culture.

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