The Safety Catalyst: Making Safety Change Happen

Jan. 20, 2005
One of America's most dynamic safety consultants and trainers begins a new column focusing on helping EHS professionals achieve positive safety changes in their organizations.

Have you ever heard a story like this? A worker made a special trip into his company because he realized he left a tool lying across a walkway in an area where vision is blocked. He was concerned this might result in an injury to another person.

The trip took 40 extra minutes of his time. On his day off.

This is not an urban safety legend, nor a story from far away and long ago when everything was different. This occurred within the past three months at a wood products company with which my colleague, Ron Bowles, has been closely working. And this is not an isolated incident in this organization, which has significantly improved its safety performance on all levels.

I'll bet this is the kind of commitment to safety many of us fantasize about seeing (and then, in a skeptical cloud, pinch ourselves awake). But I've seen this kind of behavior in a wide array of organizations throughout the world, and I know it doesn't happen by chance. Strong leaders are at work here, often behind the scenes.

So how is it possible to attain this kind of interest and action, on both individual and organizational levels? That is the focus of my professional career and the emphasis of this ongoing column.

First off, remember who you are. We're all safety catalysts. A catalyst is a substance that, when in contact with others, creates or speeds up change.

We're all leaders, all change agents. Leadership is the art and science of making positive things happen by working through others.

Given a choice, I think most people would rather be independently wealthy, get up whenever they wanted and only do what they wanted. The role of the safety leader is to help others apply better judgment before they take action, engage in safer behaviors, work as part of an effective team and follow reasonable procedures. It means helping them change.

Five Steps

I aspire to be as highly polished a safety catalyst as possible. If this appeals to you and I hope it does there are five steps you and I can take toward forging these attributes:

1. Develop yourself first. When he asked his martial arts master how to make the world a better place, Dan Inosanto was instructed, "Develop yourself first." The best leaders continuously work towards self-change. Songmaster Neil Young wrote, "Don't let it bring you down. Find someone who's turning and you will come around." Become that someone who is turning to help others come around.

2. Build the art of providing and soliciting feedback to spur maximum improvements. There are two kinds of feedback that we can give or receive and it's not "positive" and "negative" feedback, but "useful" and "unhelpful."

Sometimes, positive feedback can get in the way. Under the assumption of not wanting to hurt my feelings, someone can soften critical response (tell a "white lie") or say how wonderful my presentation was and, in so doing, not give me the information I could use to make my next briefing more persuasive. Similarly, well-meaning "negative" feedback won't spur improvement when it is ill-timed (e.g., I'm temporarily unreceptive because I'm working under deadline, or I'm preoccupied with another matter) or otherwise not received.

I find self-honesty the willingness and ability to look at my own current strengths and limitations the essential foundation for improvement. Develop an effective system for soliciting and receiving feedback from executives, peers, line staff and others in your work environment.

3. Seek soft, not hard control. Working with numerous companies worldwide has revealed these are times when supervision is thinning and blind acceptance of authority is eroding. Changing attitudes and limited resources can make it frustrating and ineffective to attempt to force people to "just listen and comply." Rather, re-position your approach as a safety catalyst toward inviting attitudinal and behavioral change through positive motivation.

4. Boost involvement on all levels. Social psychology studies have consistently revealed the more people are involved, the more likely they will buy in and accept new methods and learn and transfer actions in an ongoing manner. Train peer trainers; make it easy and rewarding for executives to become safety advocates. And look for other creative ways to boost some level of participation.

5. Influence up, down and sideways. Develop your skills at persuasion rather than attempting to sell others like a used-car salesman. Dee Hock, CEO emeritus of Visa International, advised, "Lead yourself, lead your superiors, lead your peers and free your people to do the same. All else is trivia." He further urged spending significantly greater time influencing up than down. (Coming attraction: How to employ proven methods for reaching executives as well as for motivating positively to decrease pushback.)

Strong safety catalysts don't only change others they change themselves. My best wishes on helping others and organizations live and work safer, with greater morale and productivity.

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

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