About Safety Meetings

“I have left orders to be awakened at any time during a national emergency – even if I’m in a cabinet meeting” 
     ~Ronald Reagan

Make a list of your own personal safety leadership practices – the things you do as a leader to lead others to work safely ­– “running safety meetings” is likely to be one of the first things you write down. Supervisors and managers the world over regularly hold safety meetings: toolbox, tailgate, shift, area, department. They’re conducted daily, weekly, monthly. They can be formal: pass around the sign-in sheet to document attendance; they may be informal: a huddle before taking on a key task.

In all their forms and venues, the safety meeting is a core leadership practice in the industrial world. Nothing new there: that’s been the case for as far back as just about anyone can remember. 

Take me, as an example. I’ve been at this for as long as just about anyone you can name.

I can recall sitting in safety meetings at the start of my industrial career. That would have been the 60’s. Back in the day, as college student I got to spend my summer vacation working as a General Helper in a chemical plant. Once a month, we’d shut down production, walk down to the break room, and watch a safety film. They were run on one of those old-time reel-to-reel projectors you can find at an antique store. I’ll spare you the details; let me just say the films were sufficiently graphic to have left a lasting impression. 

Leaving an even bigger impression was what took place in a monthly department safety meeting in a chemical plant. That would have been the 70’s. The team member responsible for the safety meeting – we peers took turns, which is not always a good practice – invited a Louisiana State Police officer to speak on gun safety. Understand, this was when the state license plates boasted Louisiana as a sports “paradise.” If you doubt me, watch the movie Jaws. You’ll see the evidence.

Meeting on, unbeknownst to the audience, the good Trooper went about demonstrating the principle, “Treat every gun like it’s loaded” by “accidently” firing a gun, right in front of the thirty of us sitting in the meeting.  The sound in the conference room was deafening!

As you might expect, plant management went ballistic, too.

While safety meetings have on occasion produced their memorable moments, most don’t move the needle of influence much at all. 

That begs a question: time being money, what’s the point of even holding them?

In The Beginning

I like to imagine the very first safety meeting ever held. It might have taken place in a steel mill in a place like Pittsburgh. In the 1880’s. That was a time when Scottish born industrialist Andrew Carnegie – who’s personal wealth rivalled John D. Rockefeller ­– ran Carnegie Steel. Eventually it became US Steel, in one of the biggest mergers of all time.

I picture Mr. Carnegie so upset by safety performance at the mill that he took the unprecedented step of shutting down production and gathering up “all the lads” to discuss what was going wrong with safety.

Discuss? More likely ears were ringing, like mine following that gun going off in a conference room.

Now here we are, the better part of a century and a half removed from that epic first meeting, living in a world where safety meetings are pretty much a ho-hum event. Meeting starts. Meeting finishes. Leader wraps up with “Any questions?” No questions, so time to go to work. 

In a word, they’re a ritual. 

Your Safety Meetings

Reading this, you might be taking exception to my take on safety meetings. “I do not appreciate what you have to say one darn bit. My safety meetings aren’t anything like the ones you’ve described. They make a difference.” 

I hope that is exactly your reaction. So much so, you finish with, “And you don’t have to take my word on that. Go ask my crew. They’ll tell you!”

Wouldn’t that be wonderful – as long as your crew backs you up. On the subject of safety meetings, they’ve got the only opinions that matter. These may be your safety meetings, but safety meetings are intended for the benefit of your followers – not you.

On the other hand, you may well be thinking I’ve described your meetings perfectly. You know, hours of boredom, interrupted with the occasional minute or two of stark terror. “Another hour of my life I won’t get back” when it’s over kind of meetings – as seen by those sitting in the chairs.

But at least you can check the box, “Safety meeting held.”

They say you have to repeat something six times for someone to remember what you said. So, let me repeat: safety meetings are intended for the benefit of followers. It is their view of the value of the meeting that matters. 

Yes, there are subjects that have to be talked about, even though people would rather not. Like one of those visits with your doctor. So, no, the meeting need not make them happy to be effective. But if your followers are bored to tears with the subject, nodding off in your meetings, or simply tuned out, there’s something wrong with the process.

Bad safety meetings aren’t just a waste of time: they’re counterproductive to the effort to lead people to work safely. Managing safety performance is already tough enough: why make things even harder by holding bad meetings?

Evaluating Your Meetings

No matter how you might view your safety meetings, it can be said with certainty it’s strictly a matter of your opinion. Which, in all likelihood, is based solely on your gut feel. Does any leader ever conduct some kind of evaluation of their safety meetings?

It’s not a case of not knowing how. It seems like these days you can’t even use the rest room at an airport without being asked to rate the experience. I’ve got a half a dozen requests for ratings sitting in my email: service on the car, delivery from Amazon, dinner at a local restaurant, flight on a commercial airline. 

But enough complaining about the problem. I’m sure by now you’re well acquainted with our philosophy on problems: if you see one that needs to be fixed, do something. While the problem with safety meetings (assuming there is one) is your problem – not mine – I feel compelled to offer a solution.

Well, not exactly a solution to the problem of poor safety meetings, but a path that can lead to having better safety meetings. It’s a free survey that you can do anytime you want to. Five simple questions about your safety meetings.

Take the Survey

Please understand this survey is for your personal use only. The survey questions ask you to evaluate your safety meetings as a process: What outcomes do your meetings typically produce?

Bear in mind you are the only person who will see your answers. And these are your safety meetings.

Safety Meeting Evaluation


As part of meeting preparation, there is a specific objective defined for the subject matter.

0. Usually, it’s “hold a safety meeting.”
1. Sometimes there is a stated objective like “communicate a new procedure.”
2. I always have a specific purpose in mind.

Those attending the meeting view the content as relevant and important to them.

0. No, it’s often stuff they’ve heard many times before.
1. Depends on the content.
2. I stick to topics I know my followers see as relevant and important to them.

People are actively engaged and participate in the discussion of the topic.

0. Seldom happens.
1.  Sometimes there are questions.
2.  Sounds exactly like what routinely happens in my safety meetings.

Meeting over, there’s an evaluation of how well the purpose of the meeting was met.

0. A debrief or evaluation is not part of my process.
1. If there’s a big problem in a meeting, I’ll look into what went wrong.
2.  Evaluation of safety meetings is a regular part of my management practice.

Safety meetings add significant value to the process of managing safety performance.

0. Not really.
1. There are times when a safety meeting has helped.
2. would not have a safety meeting that did not add value.

Next, add up the points for your five answers:

         9 – 10: Your safety meetings are a best practice. Congratulations!
         4 – 8: There’s plenty of room for improving. What’s stopping you?
         0 – 3: Why are you having safety meetings?

The Last Word
If leaders are going to hold safety meetings, their followers deserve good meetings.
It’s really that simple.
Paul Balmert
June 2022

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