The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention: Three New E-Words for Occupational Safety

May 1, 2011
In this EHS Today exclusive, noted author, lecturer and educator E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., discusses three new “E-words” that allow companies to achieve continuous improvement in safety: Empowerment, emotion and empathy.

Over the past several decades, the basic protocol for reducing workplace injuries can be summarized with three E-words: Engineering, education and enforcement. In other words, to keep people safe, organizations need to:

1. Design the safest equipment, environmental settings and protective devices.

2. Educate people regarding the use of the engineering interventions.

3. Use discipline to enforce compliance with recommended safe-work practices.

These three E-words dramatically have reduced injury severity in the workplace, at home and on the road. However, many corporate safety professionals have claimed their organization's safety performance has reached a plateau. While their overall safety record vastly is better than it once was, continuous improvement is elusive. A frantic search for ways to take safety to the next level has not paid off. The old “three-E” paradigm will not get us there. A certain percentage of people keep falling through the cracks.


With this article, I am advocating the addition of three new E-words: Empowerment, empathy and emotion. Of course, tradition should not be abandoned. We need to maintain a focus on engineering, education and enforcement strategies.

But to get beyond current plateaus and reach an injury-free work culture, we must pay more attention to the human dynamics of injury prevention. These three new E-words suggest specific principles and directions for action.


For you to feel empowered — which is feeling commitment, ownership and self-motivation — you need to answer “yes” to the following questions: 1) Can you do it? 2) Will it work? 3) Is it worth it?

The first two questions are relatively easy to address. A “yes” answer to the first question means you have the proper training, resources and opportunity to accomplish the assignment. Management usually can enable these needs to justify a “yes” to this question.

The second question is an education question. Have you received the appropriate justification, perhaps including evidence-based data, to believe the process will work to bring your team or organization closer to a shared vision? In safety terms, will the method (e.g., a certain behavior-based coaching process, a close-call reporting procedure or a new hazard-recognition and removal directive) bring us closer to our vision of being injury free?

While a “yes” answer to the first two questions usually can be accomplished through interpersonal conversation and manipulations of environmental conditions, a “yes” answer to the third question can be difficult to obtain. A “yes” to “Is it worth it?” means you believe all the extra time, effort and inconvenience needed to comply with all safety regulations and procedures are worth the effort.

Many of us take risks daily, including talking on a cell phone or text messaging while driving over the speed limit, and we fortunately avoid injury. Indeed, we are rewarded for our risk-taking with convenience, time-saving comfort and even tacit approval from observers who don't object to our at-risk behavior.

Safety leaders attempt to convince people that the extras for injury prevention are worth the effort by showing group statistics of injury rates, perhaps evidencing a reduction in TRIR as a function of a particular safety program. However, the average person is not persuaded because it's easy to say to oneself, “It won't happen to me.” Statistics are not personal enough. The next new E-word is now relevant.


This second new E-word for safety reflects the need to make safety personal. A focus on the traditional E-words (engineering, education and enforcement) and outcome numbers, as in lost-time injuries and TRIR, can take attention away from the emotional aspects of personal injury and the most meaningful rationale for the extra effort required to keep people safe. In other words, it's critical to emphasize the personal purpose behind hazard recognition, corrective action following a close call, the avoidance of short cuts and behavior-based safety coaching. This is the emotional side of safety, and it can feed self-motivation to participate in injury-prevention programs.

Motivational speeches from individuals seriously injured on the job like Charlie Morecraft, Brad Gardner and Tony Crow activate the emotions of their audiences, leading to increased self-motivation to go beyond the call of duty to keep themselves and coworkers safe, to actively care. Listeners visualize themselves in the situation vividly described by an injured worker, and they vicariously experience the consequences. The resultant emotions can activate a personal need to follow workplace directives related to occupational safety.

Rather than bringing in an outside speaker to activate workers' emotions and self-motivation for safety, consider the persuasive power of people from your workplace talking about a close call, a minor injury or an OSHA recordable. The learning and motivation that could result from a discussion of a certain mishap and how it can be prevented from happening again would be huge.

Do you have the kind of work culture that could activate and support this level of emotional self-disclosure? Living and leading the next E-word make this possible.


Empathy is a critical E-word in the human dynamics of injury prevention. Whether the topic is empathic listening, empathic leadership or empathic performance appraisals and corrective action, the focus is on the other person's feelings, needs or perceptions. Starting with this viewpoint makes every other management strategy more effective. It's more than the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” It's the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they want to be treated.”

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Don't confuse these two terms. We sympathize when we express concern or understanding for another individual's situation, but we empathize when we identify with another person's situation and realize what it's like to be in the other person's shoes.

Empathic coaching reflects the highest level of interpersonal conversation and it can do wonders to facilitate mutual learning and behavioral improvement. Leaders who demonstrate empathy — sincere understanding and appreciation for the circumstances of others — are more likely to be followed. And their directives, based on an empathic diagnosis of the situation, are more effective.

Conversations at this level are not efficient, but they are effective. They require patience. It takes time to learn, mostly through questioning and listening, what it's like to be in the other person's situation. Then the objective shifts to designing an action plan that fits the circumstances. This requires mutual understanding, and this is easier said than done.

However, the pay-off can be great. When we show more empathy in our conversations, we have more impact in improving attitudes and behaviors. When we show others, through empathic listening, we really understand their positions, we maximize the chance of progress.

Let's consider some basic strategies for achieving an empathic level of awareness and appreciation:

  • Take off your blinders

    Minimize the reactive filters that bias conversations. They are barriers to listening intently and proactively to another person.

  • Ask more questions

    This is how you truly understand the other person's position and eventually diagnose the problem.

  • Listen for more than words

    Not only must we hear every word, we must also be sensitive to feelings, passion and commitment. This comes across as much in body language and manner of expression as in words themselves. Listen for more than words when workers give evaluations of their at-risk behavior and offer recommendations for self-improvement. Listen for feelings or emotions that reflect concern for errors and commitment to change.

  • Use your imagination

    When you observe another person's work practices, try to view the situation from that individual's perspective. When you listen to someone explain why he or she took a risk or got injured, try to see yourself in the same predicament. Imagine what defense mechanisms you might use to protect your ego or self-esteem.

  • Weigh alternatives

    When you consider action plans for improvement, try to view various alternatives by putting yourself in the “steel-toed shoes” of the other person.

We need to approach our safety coaching conversations with an empathic mindset. We want to learn what motivates an employee to risk his or her safety; we want to put ourselves in his or her place. Once we understand the reason for risk, we can derive an action plan we would be willing to follow.

When we show more empathy in our safety conversations, we make injury-prevention personal and emotional. By doing so, we more likely will activate feelings of empowerment from those who know what it takes to keep people safe.

This is the bottom line: We certainly need to sustain concerted effort to meet the challenges of the three E-words of traditional safety: engineering, education and enforcement. The three additional E-words discussed here can be the human dynamics that fuel the traditional E-words for greater overall impact.

Noted author, educator and lecturer E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions; an alumni distinguished professorVirginia Tech; and the director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in Blacksburg, Va.

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