Treading Gingerly: Superstitions and Safety

Treading Gingerly: Superstitions and Safety

Create a safety message that resonates with employees like superstitions.

As a child helping my mom set the dinner table, I knew to grab four plates – one for my dad, my mom, my older sister and myself.

If I accidentally pulled five from the cabinet, I placed the extra one aside on the kitchen counter until after the meal.

It was superstition in my house that if you put an extra plate away someone would die.

Or at least I think it was. My sister thinks I am crazy, so this might have been a simple thing my childhood imagination twisted into something sinister. I'll have to ask my mom.

Despite its origins, this superstition lurks in the back of my mind, resurfacing every time I grab an extra plate from the cupboard. To this day, I still lay that plate aside instead of returning it to the stack of clean plates.

As a child, I was convinced table settings had a real bearing on the mortality of those around me. This family superstition –  this message – still resonates with me.

The power of a message is its impact. How long after training does your message resonate with employees?

This message from my youth has stuck with me for more than 20 years. If only every advisory had such lasting power.

In this way, we can learn from superstition. Superstitions are created to give meaning or make sense to the nonsensical; they give us more control over the seemingly uncontrollable.

Why did that good person have bad luck? Well, obviously he must have seen a black cat or broken a mirror.

Why did that unsuspecting person die? Apparently, 6-year-old Ginger put an extra plate away at dinner.

While usually absurd, superstitions do create an impact because they offer a concrete answer, something that's all too often missing from our lives.

If we really want to get through to people, we need to simplify the message. Create consequence. Make an impact.

Don't walk under a ladder not because it's bad luck, but because you could hit your head and get a concussion or cause someone working on the ladder to fall.

Wear flame-resistant clothing so you don't get burned from an arc flash.

Just think about the myths and misgivings in safety.

Few people expect to get killed on their first day on the job, but we've written about such ghastly stories time and time again. No one expects to get hurt at work, but there were 4,679 workplace fatalities last year and many times that many injuries.

Give employees control over their safety the way superstitions give us control over our lives. That is to say, explain why a safety message is important.

As a child, my world was small. I only knew so many people, I only saw so far beyond the walls of my house, my school, my family. The things I chose to believe in became all-encompassing.

The idea that I had control over the health of those I loved was terrifying, so it was with naïve zeal that I dutifully set extra plates aside.

Find ways to make safety messages not only make sense, but have that kind of an impact. Take the time to discover what is important to employees – their families, their homes, their well-being – to make them care about that particular safety lesson.

But maybe avoid making them terrified to set a table.

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