ISMAs (Involved Safety Meeting Activities)

We have to be dedicated to bringing out the best in our people and getting everyone involved.

"When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way you will command the attention of the world."
--George Washington Carver

Isiah Thomas left Indiana University after two years and at age 19 was the fourth pick in the 1982 NBA draft. Much to his dismay, the lowly Detroit Pistons selected him. Detroit was a team without a tradition or identity; in fact, its players had won just 16 of 82 games in the previous season. Thomas was not used to losing. Just months earlier, he had directed his team to the NCAA national championship. In public, Thomas tried to put his best face forward, but privately he had serious reservations about joining such a poor performer.

But instead of being a victim or "just doing time" with the Pistons organization, he began studying great teams, paying particular attention to what it took to build a great team. In his recent book, "The Fundamentals," he said this on building a great team: "Long term success of sports dynasties comes when an organization is dedicated to bringing out the best in all of its people. You don't create lasting bonds with rah rah speeches and slogans plastered on the locker room walls. You build a team by getting everyone involved from the equipment manager to the coaching staff and owner. You help every member of the organization understand how he or she contributes to the pursuit of long-term mutually beneficial goals. You establish a shared vision and a team culture with a standard of excellence and achievement. I learned that when you set the bar high and let everyone know that they are expected to push their talents to the limit at every practice and every game, your people rise to that standard of expectation."

While we're not playing basketball, building a dynasty is building a dynasty--whether it is sports, business, or a safety culture. We have to be dedicated to bringing out the best in our people and getting everyone involved.

The Myth of Involvement
Most leaders, managers, and safety committees realize what Thomas noted above, that success is about involvement. After all, involvement equals participation, which equals commitment, which equals ownership. Ownership equals results. Yet most are confused and frustrated about how to get co-workers involved. The traditional mode of involvement goes like this: The safety leader will stand in front of his co-workers during a safety meeting and ask, beg, or bribe someone to lead future meetings. When absolutely no one volunteers, our leader feels defeated.

We need to turn our ideas about involvement in a safety meeting format by 180 degrees. If we plan our safety meeting around an activity in which everyone participates, then we have just involved the whole group. We have done so without waiting for a volunteer and without the group's even realizing what has happened. This involvement in many respects is better than the traditional for two reasons: You have just involved everyone (not just a single meeting leader), and the activity is a better teacher then the traditional sit-and-listen safety meetings.

I hear it and forget, I see it and I remember, I do it and I understand.

Traditional safety meetings are filled with videos and reading material, all "hear" or "see" activities. Information is soon forgotten (if received at all). Building a successful "dynasty" comes when "an organization is dedicated to bringing out the best in all of its people," and building safety success is no different.

Bringing out the best in our people means working with your people on a level of "understanding." That means in safety meetings we must strive to "do" instead of simply to hear or see. "Doing" an involved activity will lead to understanding, and over time, success.

The Myth of Quantity vs. Quality
There once was a man who, after years of neglect, overeating, lack of exercise, and basic disregard to his body, decided he should change. He went to his doctor, who performed an extensive and exhaustive physical. Two days later the man sat down with his doctor. The doctor said, "I have some good news. You're not overweight, you are exactly six inches too short." And, "you seem to be in great health for someone who is 82 years old." They both laughed, knowing the man was only 45 years old. Finally, the doctor said, "All kidding aside, you weigh 300 pounds; your ideal weight is 200 pounds. I suggest exercise, eating right, and reducing stress."

The man returned home and set a goal to lose 100 pounds over the course of the next two years. He was so confident that he could loose 4.16 pounds per month that he did not even begin dieting for the first 27 days. Two years later, the man weighed 200 pounds. He was exercising and eating right and enjoying life.

When this man weighed 300 pounds, he had a lot of quantity. He lost 33 percent of his total body mass, leaving only quality. Most safety meetings are bloated from years of neglect, lack of planning, and lack of a clear goal. Each week as they seem to drag on for 40 minutes or an hour, there is much quantity but not a lot of quality. In shifting your safety meetings to (Involved Safety Meeting Activities (ISMAs), you will be focused on a clear goal and will be teaching through doing. In short, you will be moving from quantity to quality.

Motivational vs. Operational
Do you need operational or motivational ISMAs? You need both, and this is why.

Safety can be divided into three parts: body, mind, and soul. Let me explain. Body safety encompasses the physical tasks we must perform. For example, in the utility business, an electric line worker has physical tasks of running a chain saw, climbing a pole, operating a backhoe, installing a wood cross arm, etc. Mind safety is the knowledge we possess that allows us to do our job. It includes safe work rules, safe work practices, standards, etc.

In general, we don't take risks (shortcuts) because of a lack in body skills or knowledge. A shortcut by definition is a failure to realize one's true worth and then subsequently acting in a manner that places one at risk of an injury.

In short, we need both operational and motivational ISMAs. Operational activities will retrain on safety rules and safe work practices. Motivational activities are aimed at increasing workers' motivation and understanding of values, self-worth, and sense of family so they will not place themselves or co-workers at risk.

The Nuts and Bolts
For operational ISMAs, break down a safety rule asking this question: How can we do it, solve it, or ask questions about it? Using an example from the utility industry, one rule reads, "Before setting a meter, the worker shall ensure proper voltage, no back-feed or grounds in the meter base." Traditionally, the safety meeting facilitator would review this by reading the requirement and then orally reviewing the proper tests to be performed to ensure compliance --a real sleeper. But, if we plug in a question above ("Can we do it?"), we realize there is a better way.

Breaking the group into smaller groups of four, we can bring in a meter base for each group and have them perform the proper checks while wearing all of the proper PPE. Instead of having it read to him, each person has the opportunity to review it "hands on." Talk about understanding!

It's hard simply because it's new. Isiah Thomas discovered making a winning team took hard work and determination, but over time he did it, winning two NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons. His secrets of bringing out the best in people and getting everyone involved are the same key concepts at the heart of each ISMA. The ISMA concept isn't hard, it's just different. Hard work, determination, and the willingness to make this small change will change your culture forever. Let's play!

This column appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Matthew A. Forck, director of SafeStrat LLC, is a former electric line worker and current safety supervisor who blends life, light, and laughter into motivational safety presentations and written material. He has published numerous articles on a variety of subjects. Visit for information.

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