What Slips, Trips and Falls Signage Can Teach Us About Workplace Communication

By Carolyn Voelkening, Contributor  

It doesn’t matter what your job is or where you work, you know the slips, trips and falls warning sign: a black figure on a yellow background, arms out, one leg about to lose contact with a surface, the other leg bent knee in mid-air. Stuck in perpetual, impending disaster, this instantly recognizable stick figure can teach us a lot about effective safety communication in the workplace.

Lesson #1: Make it visual

The slips, trips and falls image is the perfect example of the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It conveys a clear message without any text, and it’s easily understood by all audiences, regardless of education level or native language.

While the reliance on visual imagery in safety is nothing new, it’s taken on increasing importance in the last few years with OSHA’s current Hazard Communication Standard (HCS, 29 CFR 1910.1200). As part of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), the nine standard pictograms required by HCS cement the importance of visual imagery as a way to communicate across languages and cultural barriers.

But visual communication doesn’t just belong on signs and hazcom labels. It’s an approach that can and should be used in safety training, according to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Safety Science1. The study looked at the effectiveness of using visual communication in safety training and found that using images and symbols increased workers’ comprehension and job satisfaction. The study also concluded that while images themselves are useful, a more effective method is to use cartoon or icon-like symbols on photographs to highlight hazards and best practices.

Lesson #2: Know your takeaway

An easy way to test the effectiveness of any safety communication is to ask yourself, “What is the one thing I want employees to remember when they walk away?” The slips, trips and falls image is so impactful because it communicates a single, actionable message: “Be cautious! A slip, trip or fall hazard is present.”

Imagine if, instead of the falling figure, you saw an explanation of the existing hazard, a reference to the relevant standard and all the possible behavioral responses. Clearly, it would be a much less effective approach, yet it’s the approach many companies fall back on when communicating about safety. They lump multiple topics into one message or training session, rather than focusing on a single, actionable takeaway. Before delivering any safety message, force yourself to articulate the single takeaway you want your audience to remember and then tailor your information to focus on that takeaway.

Lesson #3: Say it again, and again and again

The slips, trips and falls figure is ubiquitous, appearing everywhere we go. We see it in schools, in grocery aisles, in hospitals and at work. And each time we see it, the message is equally important, because safety messaging—or any kind of messaging, for that matter—isn’t a one and done thing.

It’s a simple rule of marketing that people need to be exposed to a message seven times before they take action. Especially in a climate of workforce instability—employee shortages, high-turnover, and seemingly endless onboarding—it’s critical to reinforce messages. The Director of Safety for a national supermarket chain summed up the challenge and importance of redundant safety messaging this way, “We train them on Monday, but if we don’t reinforce the message, they forget it on Tuesday, and they’ve developed a bad habit by Wednesday.”

Lesson #4: Keep it moving

With the proliferation of video on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and streaming media channels, consumers have grown accustomed to getting their information through video. If a slips, trips and falls picture is worth a thousand words, a short-form video—with its natural beginning, middle and end—is those thousand words arranged into a compelling story. Using videos in your safety communications is a great and familiar way to grab and keep employees’ attention.

Lesson #5: Be in the right place at the right time

How effective would a slips, trips and falls caution sign be if it was placed far away from the hazard? One of the challenges with on-the-job communication is ensuring all employees see and/or hear it, especially in a shift-based environment.

Consider, for example, the company that tries to address employee morale by recognizing employees in an email newsletter, without stopping to consider that most shift workers don’t actually have company email. Or the manager who announces a company event at a morning huddle, forgetting to convey the same information to the night crew. Even the most well-crafted, well-intentioned message won’t resonate with employees if they don’t see it. Communication needs to reach employees where they congregate and work: in break rooms, cafeterias and on factory floors—and it needs to reach them at the right time, whether that’s 3AM, 7AM or 4PM.

Lesson #6: Make it personal

The slips, trips and falls image works, ultimately, because we connect to it on an emotional level. As the figure slips backwards, trips forward, or falls into space, we respond personally to the idea of slipping, tripping or falling, which is what causes us to take precautionary action. We have a vested interest and we’re emotionally connected to the outcome.

Every employee is more than their job. They’re a whole person with interests, concerns and priorities that may have nothing to do with the workplace. These personal motivations can be the reason an employee makes the right or wrong choice at a pivotal safety moment, which is why emotional engagement is so important for all workplace communications. By recognizing the whole person, and balancing direct safety messages with employee recognition, health and wellness and holiday messages, employers can recognize the whole person and connect with workers on an emotional level.

Putting it into Action

While the slips, trips and falls sign warns us to be cautious, every step in the communication journey is a step in the right direction. By thinking visually and communicating with your employees in a clear, focused way, you can build the foundation of an employee-driven safety culture. You just have to take the first step. WMHS

1 Occupational safety and visual communication: User-centered design of safety training material for migrant farmworkers in Italy.

Lucia Vigoroso, FedericaCaffaro, EugenioCavallo, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925753518306106, Safety Science, November 2018

Carolyn Voelkening is the Chief Content Officer at Marlin, a global leader in workplace digital signage. She has over 20 years of experience in building audiences and reshaping traditional communication strategies to leverage digital disruption. Voelkening leads a team of OSHA-certified content strategists, designers and writers who create Marlin’s award-winning, industry-critical content (www.themarlincompany.com).

This article was originally published in the Leader magazine.