Using Humour in Safety Training

Michael Millward looks at how humour can be used effectively in health and safety education.

Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay

Health and Safety is a Serious Matter

It is possible that some of the people reading this article will believe that humour has no place in health and safety training. After all how can people learn about something so serious if they are all laughing? Surely all they will remember is the joke. Others may consider humorous comments about a subject with life threatening consequences to be in bad taste.

All of these people could be right

The health and safety manager who conducted the first safety induction I attended would certainly be one of them. Although it was at the start of my career I remember it as if it was yesterday. He was a traditional manager, obviously passionate about his profession, the importance of his role and the power he perceived it gave him.

Traditional Health and Safety Manager

As he described each of the Acts of Parliament, safety rules and guidelines he was responsible for policing, he threw a copy of each on to the desk as if it were a biblical tablet. My memories and therefore what I learnt are not about what was being taught but the way in which it was taught. Despite his passion the way in which he conducted his training failed to engage me with the subject; my safety.

Instil Fear

There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time about this safety induction. The traditional emphasis in safety training was very much on instilling a fear of the consequences of breaking the rules, rather than engaging with employees and raising an awareness of the potential risks employees face in their work environment and the ways in which they could be avoided.

Despite the numerous stories he told of horrific accidents I left that safety induction convinced that the worst thing that could happen if I had an accident was a visit from the Health and Safety Manager. Loosing a body part seemed somewhat negligible in comparison.

Learning to accept responsibility

Nowadays we view safety and safety education differently. We expect employees to learn not just the what, but also the why and the how. In safety education especially we no longer look for employees to comply with safety rules because we have told them they must, or because they fear our reaction when we discover that they have flouted those rules. Instead we are looking for employees to accept more responsibility for their own safety and for compliance with safety rules to be the complicit with of normal working behaviours.

You are an extremely lucky person if all the places you have worked have been completely accident free. Yet for many people accidents remain something that happens to other people. As a result creating a safety culture that is based on behaviour rather than compliance is not going to be easy.

So how does humour fit in?

Well let’s get one thing straight; when I suggest that humour has a place in safety education I am not advocating that trainers dress up in comedy costumes, adopt funny mannerisms, or that they learn a full scale stand-up routine complete with catchphrases.

You are probably using humour in your safety training already without acknowledging it.

Starting a training session with a little light-hearted banter helps to break the ice and put your class at ease in what may be an alien environment. Because laughter is the quickest way to connect with someone it also helps to build rapport with them. If you can get your class to laugh with you, they will like you more, and that in turn will make them more receptive to your ideas.

Jokes are Just Stories

The jokes used by comedians are just like case studies; they are stories. The only difference is that they are stories that are intended to make us laugh. Story telling is probably the oldest form of persuasion in the world. The art of creating an image in the mind can change even the most deeply held opinions. This is because stories enable you to capture someone’s imagination and paint a picture of a different more attractive future.

Metaphors and Analogies

A key feature of story telling as a training tool is the correct use of metaphors and analogies. Metaphors utilise our imagination to create links between something we know about and something we are unfamiliar with. Analogies create the same link by referring to scenarios that we are familiar with or which we believe we understand well. Both approaches allow us to rethink our perceptions.

Catalyst for Discussion

By adding humour to that story you can open up the potential to discuss uncomfortable, stressful or embarrassing issues. This coping technique is often used by emergency workers to help them deal with traumatic events. If we witnessed it as an outside we may be offended by it, but it is a technique we all use to differing degrees. It is how we often deal with discussions about our health or other personal issues. Using humour to discuss a sensitive issue enhances the ability of people to look on the brighter side of life. I am sure you will have used the expression, ‘if I didn’t laugh I’d cry’.

Employee involvement

Bill Callaghan, Chair of the HSC has spoken about the vital importance of genuine active employee involvement in good workplace health and safety. This requires safety professionals to allow employees to actively participate in discussions about safety and the risks they face, rather than being told what the risks are and the rules that they must follow.

Humour can act as a catalyst for releasing employee creativity during discussions about safety. Both humour and creativity involve looking at things differently, both involve taking a risk, challenging the status quo, playing with new ideas or concepts, and creating something different.

When someone is involved in the creation of a solution they take ownership of it and are more likely to apply it.

Getting to the truth

In normal circumstances when you ask someone what they think, the answer you get may be what they think you want them to think. Inject some humour into the discussion and you remove the corporate politics, and show your human side more openly. This will create a more open discussion. Likewise if you want to persuade someone to accept a new viewpoint getting them to laugh about it means that they are acknowledging the truth of your perspective. Although it won’t necessarily mean that they agree with you.

Physical and Mental Reaction

The change in pace generated by laughter helps to keep the attention of trainees who are actively participating in the course. Laughter is not just a psychological reaction it is also physiological, requiring wide range of external movements as well as what has been described as internal jogging.

It also helps to draw in people who may be distracted by other work issues or even by something outside the window. If we are being honest we also have to accept that the noise of people laughing will disturb the slumbers of those who want to use the course to catch up on lost sleep.

It’s OK to laugh

Work and humour are not easy bed fellows for many people. Work is after all a four letter word, and if it was supposed to be fun we wouldn’t call it work. So your employees are initially quite likely to feel uncomfortable with the concept of humour in safety training. You will have to give them permission to enjoy the humour. This does not mean writing a new policy and sending out an email.

Your trainees will respond to the queues you provide for them. Giving people permission to enjoy the humour in a discussion may be as simple as showing that you are enjoying it as well. Don’t laugh at your own humorous stories, but do smile as you tell them, and adopt an open animated body language.

The Risks of Humour

It’s not all plain sailing, there are significant risks involved in using humour within your training. But these are all easily avoided. Much of what we call humour, relies on the exploitation of stereotypes, many of which have negative or offensive connotations. It is best to avoid mentioning race, religion, gender, physical disability or sexual orientation, and your mother-in-law regardless. And remember that not every victim of an accident is a white middle class male. The identities of accident victims, and the people who come to their aid should be varied to include characters from every group.

Phrases, acronyms and rhymes

For many people the sheer volume of new information they are presented with during a training course makes it difficult to retain and recall at the appropriate time. This makes achieving a long term behavioural change difficult.

Humour as Memory Joggers

Injecting humour in to the training adds a new dimension to the learning experience that allows people to attach memory joggers such as nicknames, or phrases and rhymes to key information that will aid their recall. Repeated recall and application of a new behaviour leads to the increasing automation of that behaviour and eventual permanent behavioural change.

Sound Bites and Acronyms

Reinforcing a safety message often involves the use of sound-bite type phrases or acronyms. P.A.S.S. for example is an easy way to remember the correct method of operating a fire extinguisher. Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep.

It is a simple little phrase, familiar to all safety professionals, but it is also one that in four simple letters explains a safe technique that people need to be able to apply in an emergency without having to refer to an operator’s manual. If only there was a similar acronym for how to operate my satellite navigation system!

Visual Humour

Training messages can also be reinforced using visual humour. Just think of the number of pictorial road signs we have to warn of impending dangers. Each one is making use of our ability to associate images with information from our memories and create a desired response from us.

‘Pictures will always attract more attention than text,’ says cartoonist Bill Tidy.

‘It doesn’t matter what the subject is, pictures hold the attention of an audience much more than words. The image softens the harshness of a message and coaxes the viewer to look more closely. Strangely drawings appear more human than photographs of other people.’

‘Humour in a drawing helps to push the message. If the drawing is too dry it takes on a text book flavour’

‘The perfect cartoon or humorous drawing is firstly well drawn, with attention to detail, but trying to analyse what makes a humorous image is like trying to define Jazz music. A waste of time, but you will know it when you see it.’

‘A good idea will support a poor drawing but not vice versa.’

Combining humorous images with a phrase or acronym like P.A.S.S. doubles the reinforcement potential of the message. Using familiar characters like The Simpsons™ in an image gives the picture added interest and draws people to the image. You might think that using a familiar character distracts from the safety message, but if this were the case there would be no celebrity product endorsement.

Part of the learning mix

Humour is just one of the devices safety trainers have available to them, although it remains one of the most undervalued, under-appreciated under-utilized, and misunderstood of those devices. Humour can be applied to any training method, regardless of whether that is a classroom style lecture, a role play exercise, case study discussions, experimentation, or even a test. The trick is not to aim for the Perrier Comedy prize, but to use it sparingly and appropriately. Don’t be afraid to experiment. It is also important to remember that the complete training experience regardless of what methods you use should be fun for both the trainer and those being trained.

Safety is a serious subject, but perhaps it is too serious to be communicated seriously

This article first appeared in Safety & Health Practitioner magazine and is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher