Do You Have Safety With-it-ness?

In the Dec. 15, 2008, New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell published an interesting article on education that focused on how teachers are evaluated. The article is entitled "Most Likely to Succeed, How Do We Hire When We Can't Tell Who's Right for the Job?" It introduces a concept called with-it-ness and asserts that today's most gifted teachers have it.

Gladwell writes, "Another educational researcher, Jacob Kounin, once did an analysis of 'desist' events, in which a teacher has to stop some kind of misbehavior." In one instance, "Mary leans toward the table to her right and whispers to Jane. Both she and Jane giggle. The teacher says, 'Mary and Jane, stop that!' "That's a desist event. But how a teacher desists -— her tone of voice, her attitudes, her choice of words -— appears to make no difference at all in maintaining an orderly classroom. How can that be? Kounin went back over the videotape and noticed that forty-five seconds before Mary whispered to Jane, Lucy and John had started whispering. Then Robert had noticed and joined in, making Jane giggle, whereupon Jane said something to John. Then Mary whispered to Jane. It was a contagious chain of misbehavior, and what really was significant was not how a teacher stopped the deviancy at the end of the chain but whether she was able to stop the chain before it started. Kounin called that ability 'with-it-ness.'"

Gladwell and researcher Jacob Kounin simply define "with-it-ness" as the ability to be proactive -- to stop an event before it happens. And they assert that with-it-ness, along with feedback, is the key trait to teacher effectiveness. Safety with-it-ness, or our ability to be proactive or to stop an event before it happens, is also the measure of safety effectiveness.

So the simple question is, do you have safety with-it-ness? Here are three simple questions you should ask every day in order to have a high level of it.

First, what on this job can change my life forever? Having worked in the electric industry for nearly 20 years, I have had the misfortune to analyze dozens of electrical contacts and other serious incidents. What is amazing about many of these tragic events is that on most of these jobs, the energy source was the only hazard on the job that would change the worker's life forever. And it was the energy source that went unguarded or that the worker didn't take the appropriate action to protect himself against. Before starting any job, ask a simple question: What on this job can change my life? You may find an energy source, trench, fall exposure, vehicle traffic, etc. Usually, however, there are only one to three things on each job that are "major" life-changing hazards. Find them. Take proactive steps to control them ... work with safety with-it-ness.

Second, am I in a transition? Several years ago, the quest to summit Mount Everest hit 1,000 official requests. When reviewing those attempts, statistics show 200 of the 1,000 climbers perished. The interesting thing for me is that of those 200 who died, 150 (75 percent) died climbing down the mountain. One could argue that the focus and energy and planning was dedicated to reaching the summit and climbers lost sight in transition, underestimating the focus and planning that phase of the climb demands.

Our jobs are often similar, with transition situations often leading to incidents and injuries. Our equivalent of descending the mountain might be when a construction job is finished and the only task is cleaning up, or backfilling or climbing down off a roof or elevation. Transition is simply the last task before break or lunch. It might be the day before a long vacation. Having safety with-it-ness means we actively look for transition situations, knowing that there is added danger in these times. If you don't believe me, think about those 150 climbers. Jeff Evans, a man who has successfully climbed and descended Mount Everest, says it this way: "Reaching the summit is optional. Going home isn't."

Third, what's new? OSHA published the following on a fact sheet: "Young workers, ages 14-24, are at risk of workplace injury because of their inexperience at work and their physical, cognitive, and emotional developmental characteristics. They often hesitate to ask questions and may fail to recognize workplace dangers. OSHA has made young workers a priority within the agency and is committed to identifying ways to improve young worker safety and health." In other words they are new, and because they are new, there is added risk of incident and injury.

But being new doesn't apply only to young workers. Having an added risk of injury or incident applies to new tools, new equipment, a more seasoned worker in a new job, etc. Safety with-it-ness means you and your organization understand the added risk of "new" and take proactive steps to review and train. This small amount of time making "new" more comfortable and getting your workers more comfortable with "new" tools and equipment can save more time later, and it can save lives.

In short, good teachers are able to stop events before they occur. For us to make it through each day safe, we need to employ that same skill set. Or, as I like to say, we need safety with-it-ness!

Matt Forck, CSP and JLW, leads SafeStrat, LLC, a safety keynote and consulting services organization dedicated to building people. He works with clients in all business sectors and with trade organizations in more than 10 countries. To learn more about his safety and motivational books and sign up for free safety resources, visit

Posted by Matthew A. Forck on Jul 27, 2012

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