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Photo by Shot by Cerqueira @shotbycerqueira on Unsplash
Photo by Shot by Cerqueira @shotbycerqueira on Unsplash

Storytelling in work safety is more worth than 3 pennies.

"Those who know me say that I am a sharp guy. I'm not sure if that describes me best. Anyway, let’s do not talk about myself, because yesterday one of us, James, had an accident at work. He arrived in the morning already stressed. His little son kept him awake all night, the car did not start and the bus came too late. Finally, when he arrived at work, the supervisor gave him the job to replace the damaged cable on a motor. Not a big deal for James. When he picked his tools and materials, he passed by on his way to the working site without paying me attention. There it happened: unfocused and erratic as he was that day, he slipped with his knife and rammed it into his leg. Looked really bad, how the blood came out of it. Not to talk about the pains! Of course, he already knew before that his pocket knife was the wrong tool for the job. Now he is in the hospital and will not come back soon. At least, he will fully recover the doctor says. Oh, you ask who I am? Sorry, for not introducing myself: I am Mack the Safety-Knife!"
Based on a true story, which happened at Plant XYZ at Jan 4th, 2019.

I guess, that whenever you heard or read about a safety incident like this one, you would think different about a safety knife. Don’t you? You will change your behaviour, and this is exactly what this blog series is about. And this is how it works:

Think of the concept of empathy, which I introduced when I asked you to go back into stone age: What happens in the example above is exactly that. While reading, you connected yourself with James, the caring father, and I’m sure when you read about his injury made you feel his pains, too. Some of you may have also smelled the scent of oil in the workshop-scene. That’s empathy, the differentiate between story and report. It opens your mind for step two: Knowledge exchange.

Again, thinking of the story above, I guess it is likely, that in future you will think of using a safety knife for electrical works - if you haven’t done before. Even if you heard about them in the past, the story showed what can happen to you, if you use inappropriate tools. You gained tacit knowledge, distributed from the accident right into your mind.

Maybe you will ask yourself, wouldn’t a report do the same? Hmm, let’s see:

Safety Report No. 01/19


Jan. 4th 2019


9:25 AM


Plant XYZ

People involved:

Skilled Field Electrician (IP)

Shift Supervisor (First Aider)

Short Description:

During electrical installation works, the IP cut himself deep into upper leg.

Long Description:

While removing insulation from an electrical cable (660V), IP slipped with the knife and cut into his upper leg. The cut led to a heavy bleeding flesh wound and injured muscles.

Following initial treatment by on-site first aid staff, IP was brought into the hospital. Surgical treatment was necessary and IP needs to stay at least 1 week in the hospital. Doctors expect full recuperation.

Safety chain worked according to rules.

Root cause:

IP was mentally distracted.

IP used an inappropriate tool (pocket knife).


During upcoming toolbox meetings, inform workers of recently purchased safety-knifes.

Reminding workers of being concentrated during work.

Incident category:

behavioural, usage of the wrong tool

Since the report contains all the information of the story as well, it is still not the same. James is faceless. Above, the report provides information for different audiences: While the incident description is of importance for James co-workers and their supervisors, the fact of the working safety-chain is more for management. This leads to distractions if one has to decide on the key message.

This becomes more obvious if you consider how the report is created and distributed. In organizations, the report is often done by an on-site HSE manager, of course with the support of the front-line managers/supervisors. Even though the HSE-Expert enjoys instruction-freedom, he is still part of the site team. Therefore the report unintendedly includes a certain portion of courtesy and politics. Once finalized, the document takes its tour through the entire organization: first up the hierarchy to head-office and afterwards down the hierarchy again, into every single part of the organization, which potentially could learn from the incident.

If you think of the children game „whisper down the lane“ you can imagine all the different communicational loss while passing down the report. Every stage has its own sender/receiver issue. Unwittingly and based on each individual position, the focus of the report is shifted every-time. The message, which finally arrives at the worker, whose behaviour needs to be influenced, is not under the control of the initial sender anymore. The message is out of control.

The solution is to write a story in addition to the report. You can define the key message for the worker whose behaviour should be changed. Without any risk of dilution. In the example, the focus is on using the right tool - the safety knife - and the underlying risk of mental stress. But different than a report, through a story, James directly speaks to each of his co-worker in the company. As if sitting at a campfire. 

What do you think?

Yours, Torsten


PS: The next article will be about how to spread the stories, so stay tuned!