The Safety Catalyst: Changing Perceptions Toward Safety Change

Changing employees' safety behaviors may be most successful when safety managers are open to changes in the way they operate.

Change is the name of the game for safety leaders. On one level, our mission is to help others change how they accomplish tasks at work and home, to look ahead to see possible consequences and to make adjustments to avoid injury.

The essence of organizational safety in the past century dealt with reducing (or eliminating) hazards. These efforts need to continue. As new equipment and substances arrive at the workplace, we have to anticipate and minimize their potential negative impacts on workers.

But in many companies, eliminating external risks has already been addressed to a significant degree. The low-hanging fruit has been harvested. Even here, there's only so much risk reduction that can be cost-effectively accomplished. Much as we'd like, there may be no feasible way to reduce weather exposures for our outside delivery people, totally shield workers from noise and high-speed machinery or stop poor random drivers from interacting with our people coming to work.

In fact, I've seen companies that have meticulously removed most hazards over time and their people still got hurt running into stationery objects, misstepping, overreaching and overexerting. Consider this: In one large utility, the biggest source of workers' comp claims came not from linemen climbing poles but from office staff getting into and out of their chairs!

The second significant shift in organizational safety in the past 20 years has been on changing behavior. While behavioral change is an ultimate objective, it's tempting and easy to focus only on methods for changing behavior. If you want to drive your safety culture and performance to the next level, it's important to think differently as well. Attempts to change behavior rarely last if not backed by changes in the way people think.

Shifting Perceptions

Clearly, safety in the 21st century is as much about internal responses as it is about upgrading working conditions. The most strategic safety leaders I know embrace this challenge and look for ways to make it work for them.

In his 2005 book, "The Forgotten Half of Change," Luc De Brabandere contends that substantive and sustaining change is only realized when people shift their perception of themselves and the change.

This has significant implications for safety performance. For example, most incident investigations I've seen fall into one of two camps: 1. "Witchhunts and warfare" intimidating or shaming the injured worker into admitting responsibility for his/her injury, or 2. "Just the facts, please" attempting to dispassionately and thoroughly analyze the ultimate cause of the incident, with the assumption that this will prevent future re-occurrences.

Instead, we might choose a third way, one in line with Gordon Lippitt's counsel, "Look at the facts coldly and the people warmly." This would entail approaching investigations as an influence agent. It means both bringing the injured worker back into the safety fold and sending a message throughout the organization that you are more concerned about personal safety than the company's statistical safety record, and more interested in preventing future injuries than in allocating blame.

You can accomplish these multiple objectives by following an internal script designed to change perceptions while eliciting needed information:

1. Set the stage by supporting their safety judgment and efforts while helping them see the other side of the coin, e.g., "Though you sprained your wrist in the fall, this could easily have turned out much worse (like a broken arm, back or neck). Is there anything you did, any action you took that in your mind prevented this from being a more severe injury?"

2. Make sure you immediately express personal concern: "Most important, how are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you?"

3. Appropriately frame their perceptions as well as those of others involved in the interview away from blame and toward prevention: "The main reason we're here is to learn what occurred so something like this doesn't happen to you or anyone else in the future." Ask them what they'd advise a loved one (child, etc.) to do to prevent an injury if they were to do the same task.

In other words, move away from the either-I'm-safe-or-I'm-injured binary mode of thinking. Scope out good use of decision-making and training during the interview, much like focusing on positive behaviors during a safety audit. Without ever pandering or being insincere, it's likely you'll find and be able to support their positive decision-making and self-protective actions. You can use this information to build your relationship, their sense of being committed to safety and your safety training, policies and procedures.

Last, periodically challenge your own perception of your role. Try new approaches, take considered risks, retire old programs that no longer get anyone's attention, motivate through offering benefits rather than only pushing prevention and reframe your relationships with managers and workers.

It's critical to change everyone's perceptions of safety yours and theirs to catalyze your company's progression to a higher level of performance and culture.

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

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