Beyond "Nuts" Safety & Health Leadership

The main message among many Safety leaders seems to be “caution.” While it’s certainly a great idea to “look before you leap,” there’s an important balance when attempting to eliminate risks at all costs.

The main message among many Safety leaders seems to be “caution.” While it’s certainly a great idea to “look before you leap,” there’s an important balance when attempting to eliminate risks at all costs.

First off, much as we might wish, it’s just not possible to control the world. As noted first century Greek slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus taught, “Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.” In fact, I’ve found that the strongest leaders well understand the limits of their direct control, accept that there are factors outside of their control and emphasize influencing others rather than trying to force them to behave in the leaders’ desired ways.

It’s ironic that Epictetus’ contention also works in reverse: leaders actually can make more desirable things happen by first acknowledging the limits of their direct control. This is a strength, not a weakness. Conversely, micromanaging—which I’ve seen associated with lower-performance leaders—rarely works, especially in Safety and Health; think of trying to control the actions of remote workers—this likely just results in leadership frustration. It’s just “nuts” to expect this to work well and be sustainable.

For example, think of the simple act of walking. The world’s not a perfect place. In real life, we don’t have the option of only crossing dry, clean, perfectly level, well-groomed surfaces. Even so, I’ve heard of many falls that occur on relatively smooth and dry surfaces too. Every movement, each step we take involves a risk of losing footing. Sure, one could reduce this by only standing still (although shearing forces develop even when remaining stationary, standing or sitting) but there’d be no progress and work couldn’t happen.

Eliminating all risk just doesn’t work. This would be akin to a “strategy” of removing all stress from one’s life. Just can’t be done. (There’s a word for someone with no stress in their life—dead.)

Yet some Safety and Health leaders reflexively default toward attempting to eliminate risks. As in, “Never carry on stairs,” “Don’t jump,” and “Always avoid a spill and uneven ground.” But even with good leadership intentions, people frequently don’t comply. And so bad things continue to happen.

Here’s a pertinent analogy: According to an article in the Journal of Asthma and Allergy (and summarized by the U.S. Library of National Medicine website), “The prevalence of peanut and tree nut allergy in the U.S. has increased, especially in the pediatric population. Nut allergy remains the leading cause of fatal anaphylactic reactions. Management of anaphylaxis includes not only treatment of symptoms during a reaction, but strict dietary avoidance and education on potential situations, which may place the patient at high risk for accidental exposure.”

By the way, “Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction”, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In other words, peanut allergies are increasing among children, potentially resulting in deaths. Clearly a safety issue with possible heart-breaking consequences. Noting the increasing incidence of peanut allergies, many physicians have responded by trying to eliminate exposure on one hand and secondarily having a backup of allergic-reaction-countering epinephrine pens always close by for needed self-jabbing.

What they’ve found is that even with best efforts to absolutely bar peanuts from entering a child’s home, it’s not feasible to prevent all exposures from the world at large, whether in school, in markets, when traveling, in public overall (or even from visitors to a child’s home who had recently consumed peanuts.) According to that same Library of National Medicine citing, “Nuts are consumed by almost 40 percent of adult Americans on a given day.” Nut allergic people can’t effectively live in a bubble and there’s no way to control what others/strangers consume or carry.

But there’s a relatively new and promising strategy physicians are investigating to reduce nut allergies—controlled exposures. Shifting from a previous stance of directing parents to have children avoid all contact with nuts, doctors have instead been prescribing carefully measured and increasing doses of peanuts to young children in order to get their immune systems used to—and not dangerously overreact—to ingesting nuts. The results have been largely successful, especially when activated early in life.

The lesson for Safety leaders? Trying to control the uncontrollable is an incredibly uphill battle. Putting all our energy into eliminating exposures in the real world doesn’t work well. Attempting to force “safe” actions is near impossible and can even backfire with resistance from your out-of-continuous-sight-and-supervision workers.

What does work, from our global experience? Like managing nut allergies, place workers more in control of their own safety and health. Provide realistic solutions, rather than trying the impossible task of sanitizing the world of risks. For example, rather than admonishing, “Never carry on stairs” (while also pressuring them to hurry up, or to stay in shape, etc.), better to explain the increased risks of carrying on stairs where balance can be affected or vision blocked by loads. Then provide practical and quickly applied methods that actually reduce those risks if/when workers happen to carry on stairs. Same with traversing uneven or “less-than-ideal” surfaces. This approach has shown to actually reduce accidents and to simultaneously boost leaders’ credibility.

Or as also stated by Epictetus, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” Best leaders firmly focus on inoculating safe strategies, decision-making and actions into workers. This is strong leadership, not nuts.

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

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