Simultaneous Safety

You can simultaneously make a positive impact on several types of injuries with one unified strategy. No question, this is a higher-level leadership skill.

Leaders have a lot on their Safety plate: responding to senior executives, supervising current and accurate record control, ensuring regulating agency compliance, surfacing-then-fixing changing hazards, elevating adherence to policies and procedures –- just for starters. In addition to these protective responsibilities, another significant charge is fostering a culture with the supporting "bones"/structure that promotes and sustains injury-free performance.

On another level, highest-level professionals know that Safety doesn't operate in a vacuum; they aim to bolster the three points of the "Organizational Critical Triangle": 1) Safety/Health, 2) Productivity/Quality, and 3) Engagement/Worker Morale.

But attempting to serially elevate each of these separately can be overwhelming and impractical; in response, many managers default in frustration toward focusing on one objective at the expense of others. This is where, for example, you hear a statement such as "Safety is Number 1." This kind of thinking is too limited and just not true; no one is being paid predominantly to be safe. And when production pressures mount, workers will be quick to notice these kinds of mixed messages; they're bound to backfire. Aiming first at one objective and then quickly seeming to drop it to shift to another one can turn into "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

What does work -– especially with a time-squeezed charge? Think of simultaneously boosting multiple objectives. This is not the same as "juggling multiple priorities," trying to do several things at once but at the expense of not doing any of them well. Rather, when battling with numerous concerns, strategically select an approach that fosters multiple returns at once, akin to a grafted tree that grows three varieties of fruit.

Here's a tangible fighting example: Master Kenpo (a Chinese martial art) instructor and strategist Jeff ("Bam Bam") Voorhies demonstrates that when defending against a skilled puncher, it's minimally effective to "1-2" block-then-counterattack, no matter how fast one tries. Rather, he teaches to both deflect and strike with the same movement –- while also moving off the attack's path. I know from working out with Bam Bam the effectiveness of his simultaneous move-defend-attack approach. This definitely requires a higher level of skill.

This same simultaneous principle also works splendidly toward preventing injuries. Experience has shown that many companies are besought with at least two of the Movement 3 injuries: 1) soft-tissue (sprains and strains), 2) hand injuries, and 3) slips/trips/falls. Trying to prevent each of these separately can be daunting. One system for hand safety, another for preventing slips/trips/falls, with yet a third for reducing lower back and other sprains/strains. Juggling all these makes it hard to keep the eye on any one ball; too easy to develop "programs of the month." But the good news is that it's possible, even desirable, to simultaneously make a positive impact in all of these injuries with one unified strategy. No question, this is a higher-level leadership skill.

Consider the similarities between the Movement 3:

  • Though affected by tasks, tools, and environment, human factors are strong contributors -– both to injuries and, therefore, on the flipside, to potential prevention.
  • They can have interconnected cause-effect relationships. Slips or trips -– even those that don't wind up in a fall to surface -– can result in soft-tissue injuries. Loss of balance frequently leads to a person abruptly thrusting out a hand to protect herself –- too often where that hand shouldn't go. Handling material with weak internal linkages can transfer extra force into the arms, shoulders, and back, adding to soft-tissue problems. And this is but the tip of an iceberg.
  • Attempting to design out hand, soft-tissue, and slip/trip/fall hazards is usually the first line of defense, but it tends to help only to a certain degree, with performance then plateau-ing out.
  • These injuries have aging-related components due to physiological deteriorations in reaction time, range of motion, attention control, flexibility, and balance (each of which can be readily turned around with the right approach).
  • Off-work contributors, such as default habits, cumulative trauma from home/sport activities, diet, and medication, all can have an impact and affect each of these three problems.

So what should a Simultaneous Safety Strategy for the Movement 3 include? Though there is much more than space here allows, decades of experience shows it's essential to craft an approach that:

1. Supports workers to believe they can be safer based on what they notice, decide, and do –- at work and at home -– by making small, relatively effortless personal adjustments.

2. Places workers in control of their own safety by their learning mental and physical skill sets for improving their abilities to:

  • Direct attention (e.g., sustain attention even with external distractions, quickly switch their attention when needed, monitor their own state of muscular tension/alignment/balance, become more "off-hand" aware in order to better protect the too-often "forgotten" nondominant hand, lead hand movements first with their eyes, etc.).
  • Improve balance that is critical to support their hands being more in control and coordinated with adequate grip, that prevents slips/trips/falls, and facilitates greater usable strength when exerting force when lifting, pushing, pulling, and manipulating tools.
  • Strengthen connectedness, to ensure focus and entire body strength and balance is lined up with minimal tension toward accomplishing tasks.
  • Safely transfer forces away from more vulnerable areas of the body to reduce potentially injurious concentration of tensions that can lead to lack of hand control, soft-tissue damage, and balance loss.

Still, by thinking big picture and planning simultaneously, strategic leaders can save time, mutually reinforce multiple messages, and make significant inroads in safe actions and performance, just as they can simultaneously activate engagement, productivity, safety, and overall organizational performance.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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