From the Inside Out

My heart immediately sinks. Even the most severe injury in our company in years doesn?t produce a change in work habits.

I supervise electrical distribution line workers. We start each week with a safety meeting. Being the highly effective supervisor that I am, I have a folder of safety stuff I draw from when we don't have a video or speaker.

On this day, I reach into this stack and find some real gems. I pull a recent incident summary where a truck overturned. I snag a near miss resulting from a defective tool. On the bottom of this stack, I slip in an injury update. Three months ago, a line worker in our company was hit by a car as he and his crew were working along a road. This particular update talks about his continued recovery. I surmise this will be a great safety meeting closer, leaving a true impression.

The meeting begins and I work through the incident summary, and then the near miss, answering questions and getting some good comments as we go. With all questions answered, I go into a dramatic mode. I want to send a message and leave them with "safety" fuel for the week. The injury update talks about how the worker is being moved to a new rehabilitation unit. While he's there, one of the first activities will be throat exercises. The goal is to strengthen his muscles enough to remove the feeding tube.

It's sobering. I let the last words hang in the room. I close the meeting with "be safe."

After the meeting, it's the usual stuff for me. I hand out construction jobs, answer questions and phone calls. Later that day, I escape the office to see how the crews are getting along. I pull up on one crew and my heart immediately sinks.

There, in the middle of the road waving traffic, is one of my workers. I didn't see any traffic signs as I approached. The crew doesn't have cones or other traffic protection in place. And, to top it off, the worker in the middle of the road isn't wearing his orange flagging vest. Wasn't he in the safety meeting this morning to hear what can happen if he's hit by a car? Why hasn't this incident, a co-worker's serious injury, changed his behavior? What happened to "be safe"?

EMEs: External Motivating Events
A serious injury to a co-worker is an example of an external motivating event, or EME. An EME is an event or action, whether planned or unexpected, that happens to an individual. Think of an EME as "doing" something. The safety meeting is an event that happened to my group on that particular morning--it happened, they experienced it.

EMEs can be on a national level, such as 9/11; on a group level, such as the safety meeting; or on an individual level. Other examples of EMEs are the birth of your child or grandchild, securing a new job, purchasing a new home, or a near miss on the job. The list is endless.

EMEs have a profound impact on lives. They leave impressions so great that they produce a commitment to change. Yet because that commitment was motivated from the outside in, it generally is a temporary change, if done at all. Even the most severe injury in our company in years doesn't produce a change in work habits.

Externally motivated events are the basis of most safety programs. Today safety processes are based on creating events for workers. We call it "doing" safety. There is a whole host of things we do for safety, such as safety meetings, incident reports, safety audits, equipment inspections, training programs, and review classes. Each EME is designed to change behavior from the outside in.

The problem with motivating safe behavior with external forces, however, is twofold. First, as a rule, people temporarily change (if they do change) from external cues and quickly revert back to the old at-risk behavior.

Motivating with external events or "doing" safety is becoming the measure of safety performance in many companies. Generally, though, only some in the workgroup actually do safety. And fewer of those doing safety even do activities that would motivate a shift in behavior. The vast majority stays with the status quo, habits and work practices that are generally less than 100 percent safe.

With a few of the group in the mode of do, do, do and the company masses turning a deaf ear, we simply end up with a pile of do-do and the same old (or worse) injury log. The poor record is hard to digest, however. Along with upper management, we are left holding our noses and wondering why we continue to have such a stinky safety record.

The Internal Motivating Event
Now, don't throw this whole idea down the toilet. It's not our fault that we base safety on EMEs or "doing." We are people, and it's human nature to do things. We are programmed at a young age to ask, "What can I do to help?" Next, our companies are liable and responsible for ensuring workers conform to and practice established work rules. As employers, we have to establish programs (doing) that ensure safe work.

But--and it's a big but--lost somewhere in the need to do and do and do so much for safety is the simple and lasting power of the internal motivating event, or IME. An IME is the independent choice of an individual to shift thinking and in so doing, permanently change behavior. We can think of IME as being instead of doing. We see IMEs daily when the 30-year smoker decides to quit, or an overweight person changes eating and exercise habits to keep the weight off, or an individual commits to seat belt use.

Moving to a State of Be-ing
So, what does it mean to say "be safe"? I think it means we do safety (EME) by following all applicable rules for each task. And, it goes beyond just doing, it goes into be-ing. I want them to make an internally motivated decision to act in a manner where they're be-ing safe in each act and not just doing it safely.

The old adage says, "As I be-lieve, so I be-have," not "As I do, so I believe." Actions may change based on external conditions. A state of be-ing will not waver.

In all of our doing for safety, we need to spend some of our resources attempting to change behavior from inside out. We should remember the lasting power of an IME and the temporary (if at all) shift of an EME.

Telling a worker to "be safe" takes root only when safety is motivated from the be-ing. The secret to safety success lies not from without (outside), but from within. Be safe.

This article originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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