The Safety Catalyst: Handling Stubborn Safety Problems

Try, try, try again to solve safety problems, but don't confuse persistence with obstinancy.

by Robert Pater

Will Rogers contended, "The secret of success is simple. If you're in a hole, quit digging." This seems like common sense, but I've seen many leaders who, when frustrated, resort to pulling out a shovel either handtool or bulldozer and then redoubling their digging efforts. These are otherwise intelligent people in a wide range of professions, but they continue to expend precious resources and risk losing credibility by this try-harder-the-same-way excavating.

We as safety professionals aren't exempt. Have you seen this: Workers don't change their actions? Tell them again (with a why-didn't-you-listen undertone). Policies and procedures not followed? Write additional (and more detailed) rules. Training didn't change their behavior? Put them through the same training again and again (until they "get it").

It seems that when their people don't act in hoped-for manners, many leaders default toward becoming more rigid, forceful, negative and blaming. Ironically, these are the polar opposite responses of the strongest leaders I've encountered. When things don't go their way, master leaders are relaxed and vigilant. If their first action doesn't get the job done, then they flexibly shift to a different tack.

No question that persistence and determination are important factors in succeeding. While highly adept leaders each have a core set of values to which they stay true, they don't woodenly clutch onto fixed strategies in a changing world. Especially when their initial plans are shown to have limited results. Another Will Rogers saying applies here, "Plans get you into things but you got to work your way out."

Trying Different

For those wishing to elevate the efficiency of their leadership skills, I suggest a thought process of trying different rather than trying harder.

How might we apply this to organizational safety? Let's use hand injuries as an example of a common and difficult problem that seems to plague many companies. And no wonder. Think of the number of times (multiple thousands for many) a worker might move her fingers and hands during a typical day. Each such movement presents the potential to suffer a laceration, pinch, strain, bruise, abrasion, dislocation or more.

The traditional approaches to preventing these injuries tilts heavily to the external side of control, focusing on lessening outside-the-employee risk exposures to protect the hands: Machine guarding and lockout/tagout, workstation redesign, gloves, special cut-prevention knives and automating hand-intensive work. These each have advantages and assuredly work in many cases, to a certain level.

But if some is good, more may not be better. For example, employees have expressed to us their concerns that machine guards have actually created pinch, cut, grip, bruise and strain hazards. Guards are strong weapons in the safety arsenal. But despite these and other interventions, hand injuries still persist.

Perhaps it is time to stop digging in the same hole and to try a different approach. One that is internal, focusing on our (and our employees') perspective on hand injuries.

Attention and Hand Safety

For example, you can begin thinking differently about preventing hand injuries by seeing there are contributors to problems that go beyond just the hands. To this end, my colleague Ron Bowles demonstrates that the brain is the command center of attention and hand safety.

The way the brain recognizes and processes information directly affects hand safety. Such an internal approach might include helping workers identify unknowingly accepted risks that can lead to hand injuries. For example, most people especially right-handers who comprise approximately 90 percent of the population infrequently use their offhand and have little idea where it is while performing many tasks. This can lead to injuries stemming from workers resting their offhands in places they shouldn't. By the way, these and other methods for directing attention have to go way beyond just exhorting people to "Pay attention!"

Think of the arms and hands as extenders for manipulating objects (machining, assembling, cutting, carrying); their position and alignment can either enhance or decrease their safety.

The torso is a fulcrum from which originate arm and hand actions, leverage and control. The feet and legs are the base, which provides support for all work done by the hands; foot placement and overall balance are critical to arm strength and hand safety.

Once you help workers learn to better adjust to specific tasks, it is possible to make breakthroughs in hand safety that go beyond providing "more of the same" external controls.

The strongest safety leaders believe there are potential solutions to even the most challenging problems. And, rather than doing more of the same, they break out of the mold to try different approaches in their quest for attaining highest-level safety performance.

Robert Pater ([email protected], www.masteringsafety.com) is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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