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Humility Equals Humanity

Sept. 14, 2015
It is with humility that we learn all we need to know for turning what we do know into productive change.

Let’s face it, as safety managers we have built our own reputation. We complain consistently about not wanting to be “safety cops” or the “bad guy,” but the truth is that many of us have or still are somewhat embracing the power that often comes with managing safety.

Many companies trust us to provide solid technical insight and create value by institutionalizing good compliance programs; we do this by finding where the lines should be drawn, drawing them and almost daring others to step over them on our watch. While we all agree this is counterproductive for today’s working world, how do we get out of it?

Humility is not something innate in us as humans. If anything, we are built in an opposite way. We have a society that thrives on the need to be seen and heard and in control of everything around us. This control gives us a sense of power and importance.

Humility, on the other hand, is about knowing what you don’t know and going so far at times to say…wait for it…”I’m sorry. I was wrong.” It almost stings just to write it, much less to actually look at another human and say it. This is exactly what a good safety manager exudes and uses not as a weakness, but as an advantage. This is how we show people we are vulnerable and need them as much to do our jobs as they are told they need us to do theirs.

Knowledge of good safety management and processes is only as good as the knowledge and understanding of the person instituting it. We cannot start a new job without practicing humility.

What I mean is that we can’t move to a new job and claim to know everything we need to know in order to assess and manage risk. The guy on the machine for the last 30 years has a much better understanding of what the machine can and will in all situations. We cannot get on the floor to make them hear all we know; we need to ask them to help us understand the vastness of what we do not know. It is with this humility that we learn all we need to know for turning what we do know into productive change.

Let me provide an example. I came from the plastics industry years ago, and was charged with managing safety for more than 1,200 employees. In that setting, there were chemicals that caused acute respiratory concerns as they were sprayed on a mold. Based on the industrial hygiene testing results for this material, it made sense to have filtered air and provide positive pressure hoods for the employees spraying the resin and those working in the area where the work was taking place.

If I were to take this thought process about the need to protect people from respiratory hazards to my next facility, a steel processing plant, I would have wanted to put many in the same positive pressure hoods. The reality was that in each circumstance the needs around the chemicals were different and I could not assume to be able to effectively cure all respiratory hazards the same way. The steel mill employee only had exposure that needed additional protection two to three times per week and at intervals of three to seven minutes, depending on the work. Putting them in positive pressure hoods without researching negative pressure full face respiratory protection that would be more efficient would have been outrageous.

At the fiberglass plant, there was consistent exposure throughout the entirety of the work shift. The situations were very different. That's a very simplistic example, but in thinking about it, how many times do we have a preconceived idea of what good looks like to mitigate hazards and risks and want to implement it without watching the process and talking through the process with those who are more vested and knowledgeable than us?

Deconstructing Safety Culture

There is always talk about safety culture, but frankly the culture of a facility is nothing more than the conglomerated result of the leadership - past and present - vison of what is important and how it will be managed. We have many elaborate signs and slogans around safety in today’s society and at the core of who many of are, we absolutely believe in what they stand for and are intended to accomplish.

The truth is that we struggle to agree that we are one of the leaders that helped create the culture we rail against and are striving to change. We have to have humility to ask what we ourselves need to do differently in order to get better results for our people. Continuing to say “they don’t get it” causes us to believe that we are not part of the problem.

If we would humble ourselves, we would agree that we need to do some things differently to get different results; or as the saying goes, accept that we are a bit insane. This may mean we get out of our comfort zone and have hard conversations with those in higher positions, or spend more time on the floor positively influencing the processes and being a part of the solutions from inside the process inside of trying to influence it from the outside looking in.

One thing I never want to say when it comes to my job as a safety professional is that I have done what I can and whatever happens just happens. In a manufacturing setting, we often hear people say things like “it is what it is” and I am heart set to help all of those folks. Personally, I know that it is always what we make of it.

If we do not like current status, maybe we need to change to make it better. We need to influence the things we can and know that we may need to change or expand where we are having influence to get the best result. Beating on the same drum always makes the same sound; sometimes we need a new drum and possibly another person to help us play it in order to harmonize and create a safer work environment. We need to accept that being a one man band is not always the best scenario.

Ultimately, we all need to practice humility to say things are never good enough and that we are never done learning and growing and admitting that the needed growth can come from all levels of the facility. A procedure is only the right procedure based on the current what and who that is involved and we need to be humble enough to say that we may need to know more about the what and who that are involved.

Much like our personal relationships outside of work, the relationships inside of our businesses take effort to nurture and grow. Humility is hard, but it is required to be an effective leader. And as a safety professional, you are a leader regardless of title.

Keith Corley is an audit manager for Georgia-Pacific, and has been an EHS professional for 16 years.

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