In theater, the term “the fourth wall” is used to describe the separation between the actors onstage and the viewers in the audience. The first three walls in a theater production are the two walls on the sides of the stage, and the wall behind the stage, which partially encompass the actors. The “fourth wall” is an imaginary wall that exists at the front of the stage, acting as a perceived barrier, keeping the action on stage separate from the audience, in effect eliciting little or no audience participation in the production. Therefore, when a play is said to “break the fourth wall,” it means that the production on stage is no longer sovereign, but includes the audience, speaks directly to the audience, allows the audience to participate and engage. What does this have to do with safety in the workplace, you might ask? Much more than you would think.
Far too often there is a division between supervisors and their employees, a “fourth wall” that has been unintentionally created, whether through the culture of the workplace, or the nature of the work, that keeps employees from actively engaging with their supervisors and vice versa. Many times both parties are not consciously aware of this wall, yet each feels the affects of being unable to openly seek out and communicate with the other party. New employees, especially, can be intimidated by the thought of speaking to their supervisors or seeking help from management, and even experienced workers can feel the strain of division, keeping them from approaching their supervisors even in situations when it may be necessary. Often this “fourth wall” work environment can lead to unsafe working conditions or accidents which that could have been prevented had there been greater communication between the workers and supervisors involved. The adage “you never know unless you ask” is never more true than when applied to working conditions, and employees cannot be expected to be aware of safety rules and regulations if they are not able, or are too afraid, to ask questions on the job.
Luckily though, opening and maintaining lines of communication between workers and management is much easier than you think, and it all starts with breaking the forth wall. Instead of supporting a feeling of separation in the workplace, try to create an “open” environment where employees can easily and effectively approach and communicate with their supervisors about workplace issues without having to worry about being judged. Many offices refer to this as an “open door” or “open office” policy, where the door is always open for employees to talk to and share their ideas with their supervisors, and vice versa. In such environments, employees and employers can communicated with each other much more effectively, while sharing ideas and concepts that often lead to innovative workplace solutions, especially within the realm of safety. By making it known that employees can and are encouraged to voice their concerns and ask questions at any time, workers are far more likely talk to their peers and supervisors when they need information about workplace hazards or safety procedures, in effect setting a strong foundation for a safe work environment. Everyone agrees that an informed worker is a safe, more effective employee, and it is a supervisor’s job to keep their employees in the know, even if it means being able to answer questions at any time, especially since questions often bring to light issues of concern that a supervisor might not have thought of, or forgot to cover.
In the end, both employers and employees can benefit greatly from breaking the fourth wall between supervisors and workers by maintaining an open door policy in the workplace. Not only will creating an environment of openness help workers to become happier and more productive, but it will allow them to be safer as well.