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How to make safety stick

Effectively communicating safety messages requires emotion, storytelling
storytelling on typewriter

By Rob McLean

Have you heard that we only use 10 per cent of our brains at any given time? Or that you should check over your children’s Halloween candy for razor blades and other hazards? Both of these are complete nonsense. We’ve known very well we use way more than 10 per cent of our brains ever since the advent of brain imaging, and there have been only two incidents of Halloween candy causing harm to children since 1950 — one where a kid found and consumed their parent’s heroin stash and the parents tried to make it look like someone had drugged their kid through Halloween candy and the other was cyanide-laced candy from a father who wanted to cash in on an insurance policy. The evidence actually shows that candy from your family is more dangerous than candy from strangers.

As a comparison, have you ever noticed that despite all of the work that goes into training, safety resources, supervisory oversight and meticulously documented safe work procedures, these initiatives don’t always seem to “stick” the way we would like them to? And yet the 10 per cent of the brain and the unsafe candy myths spread like wildfire. How can we get these safety initiatives to have the same sticking power as these other ideas? The book Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath recommends the following framework.

•Keep it simple, in terms anyone can understand. Razor blades in candy, this is your brain on drugs, put a man on the moon, etc.

•Ensure it’s unexpected. Adults look over things we expect. Did you notice the sky is blue this morning or that there were other cars on the road? No. Would you notice if the sky was purple or that you were the only one on the road this morning? Yes.

•Keep it concrete, instead of often-used abstract language. Sentences like “We are transforming the way we operate by streamlining processes, utilizing new technology, empowering employees and refocusing our talent and resources to save time and money while enhancing service delivery for our customers.” If a person told you a sentence like this, what vision does that conjure in your head? It either elicits no image at all or a different image for each one of us. How can we possibly be united under messages like this? We must speak in concrete terms that engage the senses and create a universal vision for what is to be done. For example, which one of these sentences does a better job of inspiring action? “I recommend you implement candy risk analysis and mitigation through procedurally safeguarding potential loss sources” or “Check your candy for razor blades!”

•It’s got to be from a credible source. If some Internet health guru says you should eat more ancient grains, are you going to listen? What if I told you to eat more ancient grains? As an aside, eat more ancient grains.

•Emotion. For example, harm to children evokes sadness; human discovery brings pride; brains being cooked in a pan causes disgust. Try to drum up emotions in your messages.

•Make sure it tells a story. How did Tommy Douglas get the idea and buy-in on public health care to spread despite the rampant fears at the time directed towards socialism and communism? Through story. The stories he shared of the senseless loss going on in Canada helped inspire the movement and adoption of what has become a very core part of Canadian identity.

Rob McLean

Rob McLean is a paramedic based in Calgary. When not tending to the sick and injured or promoting health, safety and wellness in the workplace, he can be found making videos for his YouTube channel Paramedic Resource. He can be reached at and @PMedicResource on Twitter.
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