The Right Dose of Prevention

“The secret of success is less knowing what to do, and more remembering to do what you already know.” As my colleague, Ron Bowles, reminded me: “In life, we’re all asked to repeat many tasks, over and again. Given that, how do we continue to grow and innovate?” This struck me. By my count, this is my 174th article appearing just in Occupational Health & Safety magazine. I frequently get asked where my topics or inspiration spring from, although I assume what they really want to know is: “Where do you get all of your weird ideas from?”

I don’t know about you, but what stimulates my ideas comes from myriad places—from my own experiences, the actions I took that worked to a degree and those I wished I could “do over.” I sometimes get inspiration from what I observe others do well and every now and then ideas are spured from films I watch, emails I receive, music I hear, things I read, discussions I’m part of and more. What does this have to do with safety? I was strongly taken by this thoughtful LinkedIn post from Daniel Winburne, First Lead HSE Specialist with chemical manufacturer AdvanSix, “Nearly 500 years ago, Swiss physician and chemist Paracelsus expressed the basic principle of toxicology: ‘All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.’ This is often condensed to: ‘The dose makes the poison.’ It means that a substance that contains toxic properties can cause harm only if it occurs in a high enough concentration. In other words, any chemical—even water and oxygen—can be toxic if too much is ingested or absorbed into the body. The toxicity of a specific substance depends on a variety of factors, including how much of the substance a person is exposed to, how they are exposed, and for how long.”

I resonated strongly to this insightful posting. It’s so true and applicable to all leadership, clearly much in safety.

The art and science of immunology harnesses attenuated (weakened, measured small amount) pathogens (disease-causing organisms) to stimulate/strengthen a desired protective immune response. It’s immune system ju-jitsu, turning a potentially destructive force into an agent of healing. Such as the Sabine vaccine that employs weakened live polio virus to awaken the body to protect itself from getting full-on, debilitating polio.

I know there are substances that are "toxic" in one application (i.e. botulism when ingested can kill) but "helpful" in another (botox, where a carefully injected dosage by a medical professional, the botulism’s paralyzing effects can smooth out or reduce worry lines due to excess tension and can also relieve migraines. The (somewhat controversial art of) homeopathy employs ingesting a minute quantity of known toxins to stimulate or awaken positive healthy responses. You likely know that the right amount of heavy weight work can stress muscles to become even stronger; way too much can cause significant soft-tissue damage.

Further, isn't cancer chemotherapy basically a targeted amount of a toxic substance that is specifically designed to kill cancer cells more so than surrounding healthy tissues? Similarly with radiation, which, when overexposed, can cause life-threatening mutations, destroys organs and even kill. However, when focused and carefully controlled, can serve as critical diagnostic tool or even life-preserving therapy (as in radiating tumors to destroy them to remove a growth). Here is what I am reflecting, how this principle closely applies to safety from my experience working with a slew of organizations in many locales:

  • Carefully eliciting negative reactions or concerns about safety leadership or culture can serve to detoxify an organization—again, if done well. Meaning at the right juncture and allowing enough time so people don’t believe the leader is just going through the “engagement motions” by also following up in a timely way on those issues that can indeed be worked on. Of course, also letting those who may have taken the risk or those who were frustrated with what was happening to bring up problems, know what the leader has been trying to improve the situation. I understand that opening the door to “complaints” or concerns is neither easy nor, for many, comfortable. It takes careful communication, courage and patience. It also sends a tacit message that you will try to do something to make progress, rather than just ask for asking’s sake. But doing this sincerely can lance cultural boils, releasing the pent-up toxins of distrust, resentment, feeling less than and also provide otherwise hidden intelligence that leaders can apply to raise safety culture and performance.
  • We’ve learned that, in training workers to become active safety proponents, some of the most effective people to select for this role are those who have been the most disgruntled. We have seen these become among the strongest safety improvement agents with their peers and managers.

This is for at least three reasons:

  1. They will tend to be more forthright. Challenging is a good thing if the leader controls her/himself to not become defensive and to instead focus on positive change.
  2. Such safety proponents often point out legacy safety elements that are time wasters or energy drainers.
  3. When these budding change agents become focused on positive solutions, their co-workers typically witness a previously negative person becoming enthusiastic and committed to making improvements, reduces negativity in the culture (as naysayers become solution-focused.)

We have trained approximately 30,000 people around the world to in turn help elevate the safety of those they work with by first transferring new safety methods/techniques, informally coaching and ongoing reinforcing. So, we know it is possible and definitely works.

I believe that new methods don’t have to come from creating something out of thin air. They can often spring from doing my best to stay mentally open to others’ experiences and thoughts. Then reflecting to see if I can distill any principles from those that activate me, applying these to arenas that have been challenging. This is a potent but often unspoken component of principle-based living and leadership.

Look for ways you can think of or are spurred by others, like Daniel Winburne and Ron Bowles, to uncover and then harness even “toxic” substances—and people—towards enhancing safety culture and injury-prevention.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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