Developing a Culture of Alertness

Every leader, manager, and safety professional I know hopes to see a higher level of worker awareness. But despite these wishes, there doesn’t seem to be a bull market in “awareness.” In fact, the opposite seems to hold. As external stressors pile on, people become more distracted, oftentimes so beset by personal worries—the economy? job security? retirement? effects on family relationships?—they have difficulty focusing even on simple day-in, day-out activities. So their default automatic pilot Safety programs become glitchy. And this doesn’t even begin to account for unusual events that really require split-second scoping out, decision-making, and immediate action.

And, ironically, the more we design out hazards in the workplace, the easier it is for workers to become complacent, to assume all tasks are safe. Of course, creating safe work is what most of us aspire to, but here, as in other areas, “very good” can be the enemy of “great.”

We know that danger lurks at the other end. People who work or live in areas of high risk (think of a war zone, or work sites that seem like this) often become jaded to these dangers just so they can function at all. As my colleague Ron Bowles explains, they’ve raised their Level of Accepted Risk. They ignore ever-present hazards that would make others stop and think (or leave). On a lower level, when an autonomous worker has to work in highly extreme weather conditions, he or she may discount risks of having to daily walk or drive on ever-present snow and ice.

Given we want others to work as safely as possible, how can we raise baseline awareness? We’ve found you’ve got to go well beyond just expecting or reminding workers to “be aware”; you’ve got to go further to build an entire culture of alertness. Experience has shown time after time that signs, reminders, and slogans aren’t enough to spur ongoing attention.

Ever-present, zen-like awareness is intangible, fleeting—and frustrating when these near-impossible attributes are expected of others. The renowned psychologist William James mentioned that even he could not sustain his attention on one thing for more than six seconds at a time.

In contrast, alertness is based on skills, not just exhortations or hopeful thinking. Developing a higher-level Culture of Alertness necessitates two simultaneous tacks: 1. upgrading individual skills for improvement and 2. reinforcing these skills so they are consistently applied and refined.

How to accomplish this? 1. Develop and disseminate a working definition of “alertness” so that all understand—and incorporate your expectations. If others don’t believe that your plans are doable by them, they’ll be unlikely to even try to boost their alertness skills. Make sure you communicate that these skills are learnable by all—any age, any position—build over time with use, and can significantly help at work and at home. As Wing Chun Gung Fu master Hung Chow reflected, you may not be able to get quicker and stronger as you age, but you can certainly become more alert with the right training and practice.

2. Reduce unnecessary distractions and mixed messages. This includes avoiding overuse of color-coding hazards or signs that pull attention away from current risks such as forklift traffic. Make sure supervisors don’t fall into just telling people to “just pay attention,” as if this is were a switch you merely flip on and stay “on” throughout the day.

3. Provide a range of clear examples of alert actions at work and home. These might include:

Benefits of surround observation, i.e., developing an early warning system. Tell your maintenance professional how master fisherman Jim Williams looks for small signals that indicate where fish will be biting. Or how expert poker players get an advantage by noticing their competitors’“tells,” which are often-miniscule, nonverbal bits. Or of superstar ballplayers who greatly improve their hitting by following the seams of the ball as it leaves a pitcher’s hand. Or of martial arts adepts who’ve been trained to sense an attack mounting at a very early level.

Last-minute injury avoidance, e.g., how attention to small variations in the sound of an airtool cued your operator Linda Lewis to shut down the compressor, likely averting a potential major incident.

How this can be applied to health decisions, seeing signs of disease at a low level—whether a tiny mass or an unusual smell in breath—led to early intervention that helped head off life-threatening illness at the pass.

Examples where keen observation and adjustment significantly elevate adeptness in communicating, persuading, and leadership.

4. Train all staff in alertness skills. All people can boost their abilities to direct attention and then make better decisions. Alertness skills include: eye-hand coordination, self-honesty about current alertness habits/strengths/limitations, consciously scanning and selecting your attention target, quickly switching attention to a higher priority risk, regaining attention after being distracted, sustaining attention on a given task while working, and more.

There’s obviously a lot more than this. But we’ve seen how developing a culture of alertness can energize managers, workers, and companies; raise morale; and considerably reduce injuries.

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

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