The Ins and Outs of Safety

Ask and listen for real suggestions of where workers see Safety falling short (non-defensively, of course).

You've probably seen it. Much of organizational Safety defaults toward repeating the same phrases, reminders, or training. It's like these leaders are attempting a Safety transplant, as if they could only remove the non-Safety/non-compliant/resistant/unaware-at-all-times parts of others' brains or personality and replace this with an always alert and willing and policies/procedures-following organ. But it doesn't work; if it did, no one would likely smoke cigarettes, drink and drive, lapse into getting out of shape, etc. In fact, if leaders are honest with themselves and are also mindful enough to watch for reactions, too often, the very attempt to either bypass non-safe reactions or cajole or force in upgrades in decisions and/or actions backfires.

After all, expecting others to wholesale change at once their longstanding mental outlook and physical habits rarely works. In fact, I've found that people are more likely to make shifts in decisions and actions when less change is expected (one of the reasons that in our skills-changing training, we focus on saying and practicing, "Small Changes Make Large Differences"). Change always means losing something, at the very least an accustomed way of thinking or approaching tasks or communicating or relating. The bigger the expected change, the larger the loss—and the more likely it will be resisted or outright rejected. In contrast, when an individual "owns" a change, seeing it implemented becomes a gain rather than a loss.

And trying to get around or replace how people do things implies you don’t accept them—not the best starter to increasing buy-in. Further, even when people want to change, do a process differently, information that comes from outside is limited because there's often a lot of new information to learn and remember. Willing doesn't mean able. We see this all the time in working with companies throughout the world. Well-intentioned, smart, and able safety leaders often talk about their yearning to see people actually feeling interested, committed, and desirous of Safety. But, ironically, trying to inculcate Safety from the outside-in rarely moves the needle in that direction.

Whether it's harsh command and control—carrot and stick-like pressures to accept and conform to proscribed policies and procedures, or more benevolent command and control attempts to persuade workers to adopt changes—any trials to get people to shift what they do that stem from outside are always limited.

I get it. We'd all like to injury-proof a workplace so that all hazards are engineered- or procedured-out in advance, so that workers don't have to remember what to best do or believe or comply. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in the real world of often minimal supervision, with people exposed to cost-ineffectively controlled conditions, with exposures from clients' work sites or even at workers' homes. Nice thought, but limited in actuality. And further, even putting in good tools or PPE or best procedures often falls short when workers don't understand how to best use that lift or, let's say, adjust that chair to reduce cumulative trauma buildup.

Of course, I'm not suggesting going overboard. There's a definite and pressing need for Safety leaders to utilize their specific expertise to reduce hazards, help in crafting (notice I didn't write, "formulate without input") policies and procedures, and watchdog potentially hazardous materials, as well as process safety steps. But for highest-level Safety to take hold and sustain, it's critical that these external-to-workers approaches are balanced by internalized ones, where those doing tasks understand, approve, are interested and even excited in and become committed to Safety.

None of this is theoretical. In working with all kinds of companies all over, we've seen how those who historically began approached Safety from an outside-only perspective were able to break through plateaus of performance, spark significant cultural energy, and induce great gains in both leading and trailing indicators—all by weighting their strategies toward greater internalized Safety. In over three decades, we've repeatedly seen how safety results improve when employees are engaged and safety is being done "with" them and not "to" them. How to make this actually happen?

  • Enlist curiosity and discovery. Make Safety interesting, not necessarily through arbitrary games but by tapping into already existing motivations (e.g., discussions about personal protection/safety in workers' favorite sports teams).
  • Ask and listen for real suggestions of where workers see Safety falling short (non-defensively, of course). Encourage creative potential ways to reduce environmental and personal risks. What are individuals already doing at work to protect themselves that they've figured out on their own?
  • Challenge Safety committees and others to take greater and more active leadership roles in eliciting interest in Safety (e.g., cataloging off-work skills and interests of their peers toward inviting them to share how they apply Safety at home and in hobbies).
  • Transfer skills that shift focus inward (e.g., talking about learning to ride a bicycle. Even reading about needed skills or watching videos will only take one so far, but the only way to do this is to get aboard and figure out one's balance in straightaways, on turns, in tight spaces, and around other vehicles.) By the way, practicing/learning how to become better balanced is a multi-level skillset that anyone can improve at any point in their lives—and, in addition to moving attention within, has shown to have dramatically positive impact on soft-tissue injuries, slips/trips/falls, hand injuries, caught between, and other prevalent Safety issues.

However leaders specifically accomplish this, the bottom line to moving toward highest-level Safety performance and culture is to incorporate an internal-focused approach, balancing "traditional" strategies with those that develop interest, appreciation, and skills that emanate from within.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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