Boosting Your Safety Immune System

Perhaps to the four current E's of Safety (Engineering, Ergonomics, Education, Enforcement), leaders should add a fifth, "Ecology."

If only it were possible to make workers immune from all injuries. But at the very least, the right leadership approach can greatly boost your organization's Safety Immune System (SIS).

Latest medical research reveals the body's immune systems are far more involved than previously thought. And these findings can have significant relevance to Safety Leadership.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) illustrates, "The classical view of disease is that a single microorganism invades and produces an infection."

Here are some lessons pioneering immunologists are discovering -- and how these apply to Safety Leadership.

We're a community of organisms that are spread throughout the body. It's estimated a human adult hosts more than 1,000 different species of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, numbering 200 trillion of these microorganisms, which actually outnumber "human cells" by one hundred to one. These "bugs" both fight off pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes and also form a barrier that prevents bad microorganisms from getting a foothold. For example, benign Staphylococcus epidermidis residing in the top layer of skin prevents deadly strains of "staph" infections from invading and thriving.

Perhaps to the four current E's of Safety (Engineering, Ergonomics, Education, Enforcement), leaders should add a fifth, "Ecology." The Ecology of SIS encompasses a community working in concert to protect employees from a range of injuries. This system is symbiotic; when one element is weakened, the entire Safety culture is at greater risk. Injury prevention is most effective when everyone is synchronized with Safety objectives: workers; supervisors; Safety Committee; vendors; mid-managers; executives; Purchasing and Legal and other relevant departments that interact with outside resources; as well as members of employees' families. This means checking in, alerting, not disregarding any of these needed Safety Ecology organisms.

Mechanisms for preventing disease are spread throughout the body, not centralized. In fact, scientists say about 75 percent of our immune system resides in the digestive tract and the skin. Immune systems -- and SIS -- work best when dispersed. The view that our immune system predominantly resides in our bloodstream (white blood cells, T-1 cells, etc.) has proven simplistic and inaccurate. While spleen and blood marrow help develop disease-fighting blood cells, the skin, mucus, and other systems are also critical to health; this includes microorganisms residing in the gut.

Similarly, the guts of the organization are critical to safety. Leadership mostly housed in corporate headquarters or within safety professionals is extremely limited. The most effective Safety Immune System enlists the resources of everyone and also relies on employee "peer catalysts" and site line leadership (who can be respected workers, not just front-line supervisors) to become local Safety reinforcement agents.

A heavy-handed "kill-all" approach can have unintentional and serious side effects. NIH geneticist Julie Segre says, "Bugs throughout the body keep us healthy. We need to lose some of that language of warfare in medicine."

Antibiotics, while dramatically effective when used judiciously, don't kill all pathogens. For example, they don't work at all against viruses (which are involved in such diseases as cancer, hepatitis, herpes, and many more), can actually create stronger and more resistant pathogens (organisms that cause disease), and also become "friendly fire" that destroys protective "good" bugs needed for immune protection. Similarly, Safety leadership at the healthiest level enlists more of an invitational than forceful approach, is careful to invite critical feedback, makes sure not to shoot the messenger, and doesn't place all safety initiative eggs in one basket.

Employ immune boosters. Bring the right outside elements within. Did you know that scientists are now experimenting with transferring gut microbiomes (bugs) from healthy to disease-ridden people, often with great success in fighting off illness?

Some herbs, such as calendula and elderberry flowers (more phytoactive against bugs than its berries, according to nutritional therapist Tracy Bosnian), can support our health. And introducing the right bacteria and fungi can also elevate immune response. For example, studies show both the bacterium lactobacillus rhamnosus and medicinal mushroom-derived Beta Glucans can significantly elevate immune response. Further, taking effective probiotics can restock the good bugs in your gut. Also be sure you're including enough Vitamin D3.

Similarly, strengthen your organization's SIS by ingesting the right outside elements that ensure diversity of opinion and response from a range of employees (so be sure to have left-handed workers involved in testing prototype tools). Upgrade benchmarking processes of outside companies. And bring in effective externals’ approaches to inject new methods and to avoid becoming too ingrown/stale.

Stress matters. Research shows that prolonged over-stress depresses immune response because the body's resources are shunted toward managing work demands and away from directing attention toward changing risks or making small safe modifications in position, approach, task accomplishment. Apply this research toward boosting and replenishing the SIS by encouraging work breaks from prolonged periods of work overload, building in time outs and celebrations, and supporting workers to exercise as much control as possible over their work environment and how they approach their tasks. Also, elevate engagement and promote an atmosphere where workers employ laughter and other means to shrug off overstress before it wears down bodily immune systems -- or potentially distracts attention from safe performance. This is akin to interrupting the buildup of cumulative physical tensions before these results in soft-tissue damage.

Laughter also helps promote immunity in the body and in an organization. University of California, Irvine Professor Lee Berk says, "Gamma-interferon, a disease-fighting protein, rises with laughter. So do B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies, and T-cells, which orchestrate our body's immune response." One of my gauges of culture is the degree of a dynamically relaxed atmosphere, whether workers laugh appropriately and maintain their focus.

Exercise your immune system. Several recent studies reveal moderate consistent exercise exerts a protective effect on the immune system. This kind of activity helps immune cells circulate more quickly throughout the body, and its positive effects are lasting.

To stimulate your SIS overall, it's important to actively try on new approaches and promote and watch ongoing pilots. Best leaders don't allow their company to be safety-sedentary. Organizations can open the door to safety ills by cementing to the same old things or resting on their trailing indicator laurels.

While no one can honestly guarantee immunity from injury, leaders can boost the Safety Immune System and so make it more likely their company and workers will be safer, stronger, and healthier.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Robert Pater is Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates and MoveSMART®. To contact him, email

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