The Safety Catalyst: Expanding Beyond Your Sphere

July 20, 2005
Forget thinking outside the box. Help launch your safety performance toward a new world.

In "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Thomas Kuhn contends that the mainstream reflexively rejects new approaches that go against their existing paradigm even to the point of disregarding scientific evidence supporting the new theory. Remember Copernicus, who showed to the dismay of other scientists that the Earth revolved around the sun?

This still occurs and with even the brightest professionals. In 1983, two Australian physicians, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, revolutionized internal medicine by discovering that Helicobacter pylori bacteria caused stomach ulcers. But the medical establishment "knew" these ulcers were caused by stress resulting in excess stomach acid that set up an environment where bacteria couldn't possibly survive. As a result, the Australian doctors' initial findings were rejected and branded as crazy until years of independent research validated their discovery.

What does this have to do with leading safety? My questions to myself, my staff, clients and to you: Are we open-minded explorers and proponents for change? Or do we assume, "If it's not what I know about, how could it possibly work for us?"

For your consideration, here are three to-dos I see outside the current safety profession sphere today.

1. Incorporate creative ways to reach those groups with potentially significant day-to-day safety impact, whether they are titled supervisors, process leaders, foremen, coaches or team leaders.

Leadership rules, but on all levels, not just top down. Boosting executive interest in safety leadership is critical, but it's not enough. It's just as critical to boost leadership skills on all organizational levels. In addition, spread personal leadership skills to workers to help them become a more effective safety director of their own lives.

Suggested key: Provide training and tools that help line leaders apply safety toward solving their biggest concerns: scheduling challenges, uneven morale, being pressed between ever more demanding senior leaders and more educated or self-determined/suspicious workers, and just being overwhelmed with too much to do. For example, one of our clients in the transportation industry has trained line leaders to positively motivate safe behavior through conveying personal benefits; these leaders then learn how to apply this same approach toward engendering presenteeism and on-time behavior.

2. Tap the inner world of mental processes that can either propel or block improved safety performance.

Tina Davis-Zurface, environmental, health & safety leader with Ahresty Corp., a Honda supplier, knows her company has to go beyond the traditional approaches to safety. "We have to be oriented towards a holistic approach to safety that incorporates the psychological and physical if we want to attain highest level performance. The psychological factors are intangible to people because you can't touch them. But once you get into it, you see this can make a significant difference in safety."

There comes a time when even though you've made the work environment as safe as is cost-effectively possible, people are still being injured. At that point, safety performance is mostly about people their ability to direct their attention, understand the levels of risk they had unquestioningly accepted, assess changing conditions and make best judgments.

Attention is essential to improving performance in all activities sports, relationships, leadership and safety. We've seen in many companies how learning to direct attention can be effective in preventing "difficult" problems such as hand injuries, slips/trips/falls and soft tissue injuries.

Suggested key: The ability to uncover clouded and conditioned vision is a learnable skill, as is learning to more effectively direct attention to safety. Go beyond the old saws of "pay attention" or "think before you act" toward providing training and skills for enhancing attention control (e.g. being able to concentrate without shutting out danger alerts).

3. Become a proponent of "Health with a capital H, not a small h," says Paul Manzi, CSP, worldwide fleet safety advisor for BP Shipping Ltd.

Stress, depression, fatigue or personal ills seem to beset many at work and at home. Old safety thinking focuses mostly on addressing workplace problems that lead to compensable injuries. But, arguably, organizational leadership is concerned with overall company losses, whether they come from the workers' comp pocket or from the medical claims cache.

Suggested key: Become a proponent for workers' high-level health. Develop their skills and strategies so they have sufficient energy to get done what's important, overcome fatigue to work safely, make better personal habit and health care decisions and, in general, develop better self-control.

I didn't say any of this would be easy, but I've seen these are all can-do's. The really hard part here is not overcoming others' resistance, but escaping the gravitational pull of our old comfortable sphere to rocket toward higher-level organizational safety.

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

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