Delivering a Health & Safety Message with High-Impact Drama

June 3, 2011
Drama shifts attitudes

With mounting pressure from the HSE and central government to reduce workplace accidents within the public transport sector, Health & Safety Managers are looking for more effective ways to hit the message home.

Despite all the resources available, it remains a daunting challenge persuading any workforce to take Health & Safety seriously, or engage them in a meaningful way. However, there are new methodologies emerging within the sector which are pointing the way to a brighter future.

First Group has been working with International Learning and Development Consultancy Forum Interactive, to introduce drama based learning to its subsidiary businesses. The aim is to use drama and experiential learning as a way to fundamentally shift attitudes towards Health & Safety among staff, as well as to improve leadership skills among managers.

Over the past three years First Group and Forum have been delivering a series of workshops, road shows and events across many subsidiaries, including Scotrail, First Group America (Laidlaw and Greyhound), First Manchester and First Great Western.

Through these events, drama based learning has been used to trigger an emotional engagement with the Health & Safety message, to create impact, and encourage staff to see Health & Safety as a personal concern. For First Group, it has also been a way of winning 'hearts and minds' and creating a realistic, believable and engaging learning environment for their staff.

Senior and middle managers have also been exploring and engaging with new transformational leadership skills to help them direct Health & Safety initiatives more effectively, as well as continue to re-enforce the process of attitudinal change among staff.

So how does the forum process work?

Traditional Health & Safety training methods have often relied too much on delivering the 'big message' via an instructive format, whether it's a lecture, conference, or instruction hand book. In these scenarios, staff and managers are expected to listen and absorb Health & Safety messages, and then seamlessly apply them to their working lives.

Unfortunately, what is taught today is often forgotten tomorrow, particularly when people have hectic schedules to keep. Being 'taught' in this way certainly does highlight Health & Safety over the short term, but does little to effect long term change.

Drama based learning is about learning by doing rather than instruction. It is about learning by seeing, experiencing and interacting, and this can generate a strong emotional response. Through emotion H&S managers are able to engage their audience and begin to shift attitudes.

First Group - case studies

Below are just a few examples of the many drama based projects that First Group has initiated since 2008. Here we will look at how the theory is applied in a practical context, the methodologies used, benefits and outcomes.

Changing staff attitudes - Jim's story

In 2006, drama was used for the first time at First Group's annual safety conference involving senior managers and executives from the group's companies around the world. The idea was to engage the group's rail and bus operators, and fundamentally change their attitudes to Health & Safety. The key message was simple: that each and every staff member is personally responsible for Health & Safety, and that ultimately it's the individual's actions that count.

Forum created and performed a twenty minute play for the conference called Jim's Story. The play explored the aftermath of a fatal road traffic accident, where a young child is hit by a bus at a school crossing. The play focused on the shocking emotional impact on the bus driver, his family and work colleagues, as well as on the little girl's family.

Through this simple piece of drama, First Group was able to get across a powerful message: that each and every employee is personally responsible for Health & Safety. It created a lasting emotional trigger that helped staff think about responsibility, and the consequences of their actions. The play encouraged the audience to ask themselves important questions such as: What if that were me? How would I cope? Could I live with the guilt? What impact do my actions have on others?

During breaks in Jim's Story the audience were invited to discuss the key issues covered in the play – in this way drama sparked discussion and debate, it posed difficult questions and forced people to consider the issues at hand. There were no hiding places. At the end of the sessions each participants was given a little girl's hair bobble as a reminder of the child who was killed. Though a simple gesture, this had a powerful and lasting impact.

Naveed Qamar, Group Safety Director, First Group comments:

'The reaction to Jim Story when it was first performed at a conference was beyond our expectations. There was a real buzz that never existed before. For the first time we witnessed an emotional engagement and opening of the minds to the safety message.'

Jim's Story has been so successful that First Group has introduced the programme to over 1500 operators worldwide.

Health & Safety leadership

First Group realised that a successful shift in attitudes required both bottom up and the top down change. For long term results, managers would need to have a clear understanding of Health & Safety procedures, develop skills to manage Health & Safety programmes more effectively and learn how to influence and change attitudes themselves. This would require leadership training and development.

Mother's Story

While Jim's Story focused primarily on front line workers, The Mother's Story was a new drama designed specifically for managers. The Mother's Story was also performed at First Group's annual conference, and for at a smaller safety conference for Scotrail in Glasgow, UK. For Scotrail, the scenario was adapted to include a rail fatality, and was watched by 100 managers from health and safety to operations.

Mother's Story was a follow up to Jim's story, looking at the same scenario a year down the line. The little girl's mother discovers that the safety procedures on the bus had not been followed through. She goes to the newspapers with the story, and sues the company for corporate manslaughter. The play ends with the audience voting on whether the Managing Director of the bus/rail company is guilty of corporate manslaughter.

The Mother's story highlights issues surrounding liability, as well as encouraging managers to think about leadership and implementing procedures. Through discussion, the audience explore the actions that should have been taken, while highlighting and recognising the MD's mistakes. Forum stop the action at key points, enabling managers to intervene and provide new strategies and techniques for the fictional MD to initiate.

The theme running through The Mother's Story is simply the importance of senior managers modeling the correct approach to safety and the importance of practicing what you preach, being committed and showing it. Drama conveys these messages in a controlled, yet real and believable environment.

Transformational leadership

At both events, The Mother's Story was followed by a series of forums looking at the subject of transformational leadership. These sessions allowed participants to engage with a particular safety problem whilst testing transformational and transactional leadership qualities. This was designed to help managers get a sense of different leadership styles, and use these to solve problems.

Forum created a series of scenarios based in a manufacturing plant, and participants worked through the protagonist (the manager) to resolve the issue at hand, and change the attitudes and behaviors of the staff.

The action could be stopped, re-wound and erased enabling participants to practice leadership techniques, and see the outcomes in real time. This proved helpful in enabling managers to learn from their decisions, as well as develop new skills.

Discussing and sharing safety strategies - The World Café

One of First Group's final challenges was to encourage its managers to discuss and share successful Health & Safety strategies, find new solutions to existing problems as well as a mechanism that allowed them to distribute helpful techniques to other staff members.

To this end Forum created a series of World Café events for Scotrail's safety conference in Glasgow and First Group's 'Injury Prevention Programme' in the States. The World Café's were small events for up to 20 managers. A series of short scenes were shown at strategic points during the 'World Café' event. Each scene posed a different challenging question for the delegates to discuss. For example:

What does it mean to care in the context of your work?What is your role and responsibility in terms of safety within your organisation?

At the end of each scene the delegates break out into different tables to discuss the issues being raised in the play, raising awareness and understanding along the way.

The discussions then moved onto managers individual problems around safety. They were encouraged to share these with the group and collectively work towards solutions using paired coaching. They were asked to talk about their challenges and objectives and proposed way forward. The pairs then went away and worked together over a six month period supporting and coaching each other to achieve their goals.

Here are some real life examples of the kind of issues that were raised by Scotrail Managers, and the solutions development to overcome these challenges:


Objective: To build trust in raising and reporting issues that are affecting staff. Initiate staff team building.

Way forward:

Arrange tours of station to identify problemsEncourage responsibility in incorporating into brief to communicate to others.


Objective: A reduction in accidents (staff and public) attributed to his organisation

Way forward:

Formulate safety action plansHave regular meetings with safety reps to get their inputDrive through the actions to meet the above objective

This collaborative approach resulted in increased communication both across and upwards within the Scotrail organization, as well as an increase in the culture of shared problem solving around safety.


Though First Group's work on Health & Safety is far from over, they have already made big strides. Drama has helped the group to create impact where before they were faced with apathy. It has engaged both staff and their managers, stimulated discussion, changed attitudes and fundamentally altered people's perception toward Health & Safety and its impact on the working environment. The two organisations will continue to work together through 2009 and 2010 delivering experiential learning.

Tess Allen is the director of Forum Interactive.