The Breath of Safety

Oxygen is a life-essential element that many take for granted; we only note its critical lack when oxygen is diminished or entirely absent.

What you can’t see can still dramatically affects you—for help or harm. This certainly applies to the intangibles of safety culture (attitudes, dissatisfactions, beliefs, habits, off-work actions, pre-existing injuries and conditions and much more). It’s also pertinent to physical forces like radiation or gravity as well as to viruses and other biological organisms. It even applies to unseen, odor- and taste-less gases like oxygen. Yet oxygen is a life-essential element that many take for granted; we only note its critical lack when oxygen is diminished or entirely absent—as identified in Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

The rapid spread of COVID-19 illuminated this. This virus’ fatal possibility is creating hypoxia (deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues) by attacking the ability of the lungs and circulatory system to connect with, and then deliver, life-preserving oxygen to all cells in our body. In essence, it internally suffocates a person, even when oxygen may be abundant outside.

During COVID-19’s devastating flooding of hospitals, physicians were desperate to find remedies to help severely affected people recover. Some medicos found that breathing methods could greatly help—even when allopathic “cures” weren’t yet available. Dr. Sarfaraz Munshi, M.D., from London’s Queen’s Hospital explained, “The idea is to get the lower part of a person’s lungs to expand so that any mucus that’s collecting there can be dislodged and coughed out.” To accomplish this, they instructed patients to first sit up and take a deep breath then hold for five seconds (doing this cycle five times). Second, cough into a cloth once. Third, lie prone/on the stomach to breathe deeper than normal for ten minutes. (Repeat this method frequently.) For what it’s worth, two well-known COVID-19 sufferers, author J.K. Rowling and CNN journalist Chris Cuomo both indicated this method considerably helped them.

Of course, breath is an essential and time-limited life function. As one person reflected, each of us is on the verge of dying every few moments, unless we renew our life lease by taking yet another breath. Breathing is the only physiological function that anyone can consciously control, yet also instantly switches to automatic pilot mode when we’re not thinking of it. In this way, it’s a bridge between our conscious and unconscious functioning. When you think about it, this is exactly the same as a prime safety goal; for people to become consciously aware of changing risks, choose best decisions and actions while also developing go-to, “background” safest habits, even when they’re consciously preoccupied with tasks.

Not surprisingly, numerous disciplines incorporate/transfer some kinds of breathing techniques—whether for maximizing/heightening health, energy, relaxation, physical performance, mindfulness or personal development. What do these techniques have in common? In addition to offering moments of potential “relief,” they employ the conscious mind to reprogram unconscious/habitual breathing routines. That is, intentionally taking a relatively short time to do a pattern interrupt, to change those breathing ways that we spend most of our time doing without thinking about it. It’s akin to reprogramming attentionally background activities, critical in raising all safety skills (e.g. turning into a skid when driving, rather than fearfully fighting against it; when momentarily losing balance when walking, recovering by bending knees to lower center of balance and quickly moving feet underneath torso, rather than stiffening up which makes a fall more likely; getting closer to a load you’re going to move, rather than overreaching). 

Remember that the weakest link breaks first (we often come up short when relying on untrained suboptimal reflexive reactions in critical times.) Similarly, leaders might think of strategies for raising safer default perceptions, decisions and actions by elevating unconscious/automatic baseline useful defaults. Like building in the automatic motion of first securing seat/shoulder belt before driving a car (some companies try to build in this default with a “don’t insert the key into the ignition switch until your seat belt is fastened” rule); checking the weight and balance of an object before lifting; scanning, then clearing a path before carrying a load. So much more. 

Add breath control as a high-level safety skill that pretty much everyone can quickly learn. Two great and proven ways to accomplish this are: training that builds in practice of the improved methods and elevating self-monitoring, checking to notice whether I’m mostly breathing shallowly from my upper chest vs. more fully expanding diaphragm and ribcage. (For just one highly effective breathing method for relaxation and mental clearing that I’ve personally used for many years, search on “4-7-8 breathing video Andrew Weil MD.”1

Far from being weird or overly “sophisticated”, breathing methods are natural and can benefit safety and health in many ways—whether helping clear the mind to encourage relaxed receptivity, or energizing physically and mentally, or aiding mental focus by reducing “monkey-mind” and distracted thinking, or even to help heal (as applied to COVID-19 symptoms and more). 

In “3 B’s for Preventing Soft-Tissue Injuries,” I wrote about the tie-in between breathing methods and preventing soft-tissue injuries.2 Many professionals have “health” in their title (“Environmental Health & Safety”, etc.) At all times, but especially when illness looms large, it becomes ever clearer that health is inseparable from injury prevention, that our roles as safety leaders have to encompass promoting and supporting overall health and well-being, beyond just preventing “accidents.” 

The takeaways for leaders? First, that incredibly powerful influences and forces can and do affect us, even when these are invisible to us. Second, that relatively small actions and modifications we make can often have significantly large impacts (for better or worse). Third, that breathing methods are incredibly useful for injury prevention, mental focus, high-grading health and much more. Consider breathing a range of such practical methods into your company—and into your own life.

Robert Pater is Managing Director and creator of the MoveSMART system for preventing strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls, hand injuries implemented in over 60 countries. Their emphasis is on “Energizing, Engaging Expertise” to simultaneously elevate safety performance, leadership and culture. Robert writes two ongoing columns for Occupational Health & Safety and for Professional Safety.




This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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