Stepping Beyond Organizational Tripups

One of leadership's biggest blockages is failing to acknowledge real problems. It's easier for some to focus on issues of which they think they have control rather than tackle longstanding, seemingly insolvable, obstacles.

Like the classic story about the man concertedly looking for something under a lone streetlight in an otherwise pitch-dark night. A friend happens by, sees the man obviously searching and asks what it is. "My car keys," the man replies. The friend then asks where he lost them. The man points far into the darkness and says, "Somewhere over there." "But why, then," she asks, "are you looking under the lamp?" "Because," the man replies, "the light's much better here."

What's easy isn't always what works nor what's most needed. Out of sight, out of mind too often translates to "still plaguing us." This can result in artificially jumbling priorities, ignoring most pressing needs.

Want to elevate your culture? You might honestly ask yourself: "What continues to rear its ugly head because we've effectively given up, having exhausted 'all possible solutions?'"

For many in Safety, there's little more indicative of cultural slippage than the problems of slips, trips, and falls. You know, the things that seemingly happen every day. Typical response is to try engineering all hazards out or adjuring people to "Pay attention!" Evidence shows the first approach is impossible because people cross uncontrollable surfaces or even wind up slipping or tripping on minor imperfections (carpet puckers, slight divots, elevator thresholds not exactly lining up with floors, etc).

And the "pay attention" approach often winds up being empty words, not grounded in skills or actions, then forgotten in a busy moment's notice.

Yet these injuries continue to plague many companies. According to latest completed data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2006), "Falls to the same level" was the second-leading cause of disabling injuries, 13.3 percent of private-sector worker's comp costs. And "Falls to lower level"—including stairs, not necessarily from very high elevation—was the number three cost leader. Yet despite hard statistics, too many continue to either bypass these problems or do the same old things that have only worked to a certain point.

Though not just employees' "fault," slips, trips, and falls are ultimately the failure to make right on-the-spot modifications or course corrections. Every day, most of us cross less-than-perfect terrain, walk, climbs stairs, and in other ways are at risk of a slip or trip. We'll never create an environmentally ideal world. Yes, do what you can to control surfaces, but then step up to place people in control of their own safety.

Here are sample behavioral strategies and skills that have shown to demonstrably reduce slips, trips, and falls (up to 44 percent, in some companies):

A. Noticing and adjusting to (or avoiding where practical) hidden slip/trip hazards, such as slight changes in ground heights (puckers in carpet, small objects on the ground, etc.), adapting gait to first step when moving between two surfaces that will likely "grab" your feet different amounts of friction, scan ahead and decide upon safest path, etc.

B. Staying on your feet when crossing all kinds of terrain—in the dark, crossing uneven changing surfaces, obstacles, step-ups and step-downs, stepping over and under conveyers, getting into and out of different types of vehicles (from cars to forklifts), on ladders and ramps, when carrying both one- and two-handed, on stairs.

These are applications of maintaining balance, which has both mental and physical components. While balance can deteriorate with aging (due to lessened ability to adjust to changes in leaning, desensitization of balance sensors in inner ear, and more), everyone can learn to significantly improve balance with simple attentional, positional, alignment, and internal selfmonitoring skills.

C. Recovering balance when initially lost. Everyone has skidded, lost surefootedness, begun to trip. But the right skills—such as Going With/Not Fighting Momentum, Lowering Fall Potentials, and Regaining Natural Alignment—can help you stay upright, not impact the ground (or skid uncontrollably into a wall, machine, or other vertical surface).

D. "Saving Yourself," reducing injury severity from an unavoidable fall. While of course it's best to prevent slips or trips or then remain upright after initial loss of balance, there may be times when further backup skills are needed.

When people learn to apply even 10 percent of these actions—1. Protect the Most Vulnerable Areas First, and 2. Spreading the Force of the Impact—they can put the odds in their favor of not getting as badly hurt by 10 percent. Also, the right approach includes strong mental skills (visualization, safe and modified runthrough) that reinforce before-the-fall prevention.

It's easy to take potshots at behavioral methods for preventing slip/trip/fall injuries—"No way you're going to teach people how to walk differently," "They'll never remember this," "It's impossible to think and act that quickly," "It would take years of practice before anyone could ever use this." But reports and statistics from numerous companies bear proof it's possible to train just about anyone in a relatively short time to make better decisions while on the move, solidify their balance, recover from misstepping, and reduce injury from unpreventable impact. The objective is to set a heightened internal autopilot program for surefootedness.

Strongest leaders never give up. If your company, like many worldwide, has nagging slip, trip, and fall problems, don't abandon hope. Instead, go beyond same-old fatigued strategies towards portable personal actions for significant improvements at work and home.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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