Hectoring your employees and contractors about safety doesn’t work; nobody likes being told what to do. But brief and simple personal anecdotes describing how somebody averted disaster by playing it safe – or came to grief by taking an unnecessary chance – will grab and hold listeners’ attention. And get the safety message across.

Gather round, everyone, and listen carefully. Bill Mercer, vice- president of exploration at Avalon Advanced Materials Inc., is going to tell us all a story about safety and helicopters:

My first summer in the bush – it was probably in the mid-1970s and I wasn’t with my present employer – I was in charge of a camp in northern Saskatchewan. It was during the uranium exploration boom, and we were looking for uranium.

We had a helicopter, which came with a pilot and an engineer, full time in the camp. The engineer was very young and inexperienced. The other geologists in camp came to me and said I had to do something about him because he was throwing buckets of aviation fuel onto the evening campfire. The fuel caused huge explosions and alarmed the other guys. So I spoke to the engineer. He told me he had to use up the gas left in the bottom of the drums because it was dirty. I told him not to do it. But he did it again. And I did nothing serious to stop him. A month later, the camp broke up and the helicopter flew off with both pilot and engineer.

Later on, in a different camp, we needed a helicopter for one week. As soon as the machine had flown in, we could see that the pilot was none other than the problem engineer, who now had his pilot’s licence. My crew told me straight off they wouldn’t fly with him. “Give him time,” I said. “Anyway, it’s only for one week.”

And quite a week it was. One day, when he was landing in a swamp to pick up two of us, the ’copter’s blades hit a dead tree and one of the blade tips flew off. The helicopter was barely able to fly because of the imbalance between the blades. The engineer/pilot removed the tip off the other blade so the helicopter could fly in balance again. But of course, the blades no longer had their protective tips.

A few years later, he was flying south from Prince George in early winter. The passengers were senior executives of a timber and pulp mill company. A snowstorm came up and the helicopter went into the side of a mountain. Everyone was killed.

Mercer says his experience with the unfortunate engineer/pilot was a learning experience. And, naturally, he relates his lessons learned in the form of a story.

As a young geologist in charge of a camp, I did not understand my responsibility or my authority. I also knew almost nothing about helicopter safety. Before that first season in the field, I had never flown in one. What I learned is that you cannot have bad attitudes and procedures with helicopters; they’re dangerous machines.

I also realized the young man’s early activities were indicators of what would happen at the end. As soon as I found him burning aviation fuel in the campfire, I should have called the helicopter charter company and said I was dismissing him and expected a replacement immediately, or it no longer had our contract.

When I tell this story to young geologists going into the field, I tell them to learn from my experience and not make my mistakes. They should take action if there’s a problem, and the result could be lives saved.

Another safety expert who uses storytelling to good effect is Holly Keyes, health, safety, environment and community co-ordinator at Rio Tinto Exploration Canada Inc. Here is a story Keyes often tells:

Working in teams – a good strategy for the core shack.

Early in my career, while working for a junior company, I was in a camp of 25 people in north-central B.C., where we were exploring for copper. One cool, fall day, I was in the core shack by myself, logging core. The shack was a rickety two-by-four building with plastic panels, and heated by a diesel stove. To seal up the cracks and keep the mice and rats out, we had recently sprayed the inside of the shack with foam.

I hung up my coat and started logging core. Soon I began to feel very, very sleepy. I lay my head down on the core to take a quick nap. My thoughts were sluggish, like they were trying to percolate through wet cement. I knew I shouldn’t be so tired, because I had slept well the night before. I was able to form the thought that I should go outside and get some fresh air. I took my coat off the hook. And immediately the carbon monoxide (CO) alarm went off.

I was able to stumble outside, and I stayed there until my head had cleared and the shack had aired out. I realized my coat had been covering the monitor and that I could have died from CO poisoning.

Immediately after this incident, we improved the ventilation in the core shack and moved the CO monitor to where it couldn’t be blocked. We also didn’t work alone after that.

Keyes says she often uses storytelling to do safety training. “Storytelling helps people understand and remember the safety lesson,” she says. “It certainly works better than listing a lot of rules and regulations.”

Most of the stories Keyes tells are based on personal experience. “And stories that are funny or somehow over the top are easily remembered,” she says.

Like Mercer and Keyes, Scott Kingston is a big believer in the power of stories and anecdotes to teach the dos and don’ts of workplace safety. “If you talk about a real-life event that actually took place, whether it’s an accident or a near-miss, your listeners will relate to it,” says Kingston, who is a geologist with Tetra Tech Canada Inc. and a member of AME’s Environment, Health and Safety Committee.

Kingston says the storytelling experience is just as valuable to the narrator as to the listeners. “It enables everyone to place themselves in the same situation, and learn from one another.”

Kingston has a few tips for aspiring tale spinners. “Make the story interesting and relevant to listeners,” he says. “Pull them into the story with lots of detail and vivid description.”

Finally, Kingston says, it’s important for the narrator to be open. “The best talks are the ones in which the person telling the story admits their mistake and discusses what they learned from it.”