Skills Are Safety’s True Bottom Line

In this environment, seeing and then adjusting to limitations, weaknesses and blockages is critical to leadership and to safety performance.

Consider this often-overlooked key to success: realizing that things will never go exactly as conceived. As champion boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Yeah, everyone has a plan—until they get punched in the face.”

This means not letting yourself become startled or blindsided when, not if, things deviate from the intended path. In this environment, seeing and then adjusting to limitations, weaknesses and blockages is critical to leadership and to safety performance. After all, aren’t we all now working in circumstances that we likely never envisioned not long ago? Haven’t we had to readjust or wholesale replace all previous meticulous planning? As Abraham Lincoln reminded, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

One tangible way safety leaders can “think anew” is shifting from limited past approaches. In particular, on the human side of safety, I’ve frequently seen how traditional organizational efforts have overly focused on externally emphasizing “will” over “skills.” Expending a large portion of time and resources attempting to motivate people to “be safe,” as if a primary obstacle is workers’ lack of interest, desire or awareness in protecting themselves.

In PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2020 Annual Global CEO Survey, CEO Bob Moritz proclaimed, “To upskill or not to upskill is no longer the question. Upskilling is always mentioned as desirable by CEO’s but most companies haven’t done a good job of this. Those companies that do are much more confident about their ability to take control of their own future. Organizations will have to grow their own future workforce.”

Here are three strategies for high-grading skills-based safety:

Motivate, but don’t assume “will” is enough to get a job done safely. There’s way too much emphasis on “wanting it badly enough” in sports or at the workplace. To an extreme, climbing a tree and then “willing” yourself to hover down slowly to the ground after jumping—no matter how much you “want it”—is unlikely to prevent injury. The ultimate purpose of motivation (like commitment to acting safely, avoiding slipshod methods or high-risk-low-return shortcuts) is to direct attention towards learning, then applying the right skills to accomplish tasks safely and efficiently.

Yet so much of safety communications and programming seems predominantly based on carrot-and-stick motivation. On the “carrot” side:

  • Pleading. “Do this so bad things don’t happen to you”
  • Reasoning. “….so that you’ll be able to leave work in the same condition as when you came in”
  • Dreaming. “…so you’ll be able to retire in one piece”

These positive motivational approaches can also include incentives, which can range from bingo to rewards to dinners.

Then there’s the “stick” side—all of which are kinds of threats:

  • “… or else you’ll be written up.”
  • “…be forced to take days off (without pay).”
  • or “… so you don’t make us look bad.”

Workers could also be called out as stupid, labeled as not “caring about your own safety,” or even fired. There is also the middle ground of exhorting people to “pay attention,” “work safe,” “think before you act,” and more.

While these approaches might seem to differ in form, they all have one thing in common: the assumption that safer decisions and actions are mostly based on people “wanting” to be safe. Underlying that is the belief that workers already know how and what to do but lack the desire—or energy—to complete tasks safely. So, safety leaders just have to somehow cajole or coerce workers to exert their will to act in desired ways. And, of course, that it’s possible to insert desire for safety into others by just repeating commands or offerings or thoughts long and perhaps loud enough. Further, I’ve seen that some of the smartest, savviest, most experienced safety professionals aren’t immune from the draw of some kind of “rah-rah” approach to changing others actions.

In our work over more than three decades, we’ve seen that when it comes to safe performance and culture, skill rules. In fact, acquiring real, practical, usable safety skills strengthens “will.” Successfully fulfilling a task is actually one of the best internal motivators there is.

Be sure to upgrade mental skillsets as well. Too many equate “skills” with increasing physical abilities. These are critical, of course, but don’t cover equally important mental skillsets. It’s too easy to not see that mental skills can be acquired, trained and enhanced through rehearsal and practice in the same way that the right physical exercise practiced the best ways develops muscles, balance and coordination. Note that cognitive skills always precede physical skills, as all actions – even as mundane as drinking a glass of water— begin with impulses or thoughts that are then transmitted through the nervous system to activate required muscles.

Courtesy of change master Ron Bowles, here are a few mental skills employees can develop to help them better protect their own safety:

  • Directing Attention. Focused attention is a trainable mental skill. Through practice, almost all people, at any age, can learn to direct and then change attention towards where it will be most helpful.
  • Assessing and evaluating. Participating in problem-solving activities can improve mental skills for retrieving and evaluating options. This is critical preparation when deciding how to proceed when situations, environments or equipment change, or when performing non-routine tasks.
  • Developing safety decision-making skills and methodologies. These include mental rehearsal and hazard recognition, helping workers learn to visualize where their hands will move during a task to significantly reduce hand injuries or employing PPE.
  • Examining how mental skills integrate and lead those physical skills necessary to get tasks done safely and effectively. Mental practice and focus have been proven to significantly improve safest movements.

Follow the ultimate 5-step skills development process.

1. People have to want to improve/see the need.

2. They have to believe it’s actually possible for them to get better (not just an abstract thought, not that improvement is more likely to happen for others.)

3. They have to know what to do. This has to be tangible, practical, doable in real-life conditions and learnable in bite-sized parts.

4. They have to practice. Please don’t get sucked into the “show them the video once and expect them to do it” trap. One-shot anything is unlikely to result in ongoing improvements that really require steadily ramping up skills.

5. Newly-acquired skills are set/reinforced, ideally by them. Again, one-and-done really results in “and done”, rather than the accruing enhancements.

During these times of considerable and even unique challenges, sorting out and improving skills is critical for moving towards higher-level safety and leadership on all levels.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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