You can measure safety character by observing how people make decisions. Every decision to take unnecessary risk is preceded by a series of ill-advised choices. Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean.
When I was 14 years old, I lived in a small town in South Carolina. The town was positioned on the Georgia state line and to cross into Georgia, you had to travel over a bridge spanning a large lake. The bridge had a unique appeal. It towered above the lake, representing a perfect opportunity for a group of bored teenagers to test the laws of gravity.
One day my friends and I decided to pull to the side of the road so we could see the drop from the top of the bridge to the lake. The view ignited our sense of adventure. We found a path from the road leading under the bridge where we discovered a fence restricting access to a catwalk under the main structure of the bridge. The fence was posted with “Danger – Keep Out” signs, sending a clear message that our safety was in jeopardy. But the temptation was too great. We scaled the safety barrier and accessed the restricted catwalk.
Once we journeyed onto the catwalk, our sense of adventure extended beyond the safety of the catwalk. We crawled over the guardrails and onto the beams supporting the bridge. We did not need fall protection or guardrails, because each move took us one step closer to the ideal place to JUMP!
The older I get, the higher the bridge becomes, but I remember feeling like we were on the edge of the upper deck of a major league baseball park wondering how long it would take to drop to the water. We were contemplating an act of stupidity. We had no idea how deep the water was or what may be drifting under the surface. We did not consider how far we would have to swim back to the shore. We did not think about what we may hit on the way down. We considered retreating to safety, but the momentum of the moment drove us closer to the edge.
We progressed to a point of no return, and we abandoned the security of the edge. Once we took that final step, the laws of gravity took over, and I can remember questioning my sanity as my descent accelerated. You could only brace yourself for a painful impact.
Jumping from the bridge was the WRONG decision, but the decision was preceded by unwise choices. We were safe sitting in the car driving over the bridge but our curiosity took us one step too far. The journey began from the safety of the road and advanced to the insecurity of the catwalk. We ignored safety warnings and bypassed barriers. From the security of the catwalk, we approached the edge of the support beams and concrete pillars. Despite the warning signs along the way, we reached a rapid conclusion when we took the final step.
You can imagine the potential for disaster in my bridge-jumping experience. How many ways could you get hurt? Luckily, no one was injured, and I look back on those days asking myself, “What was I thinking?”
Where should I have made the right choice? You can ask yourself the same question about specific behaviors at work.
1.) Stay on the road – We have a desire to achieve our goals and sometimes we want to “push the edge” to reach our milestones. Our initiative can lead to unwise choices, increasing our risk for injuries. Work within the established safety guidelines and enjoy the security of a safe work environment. Safety rules and guidelines exist for a purpose. Don’t let the pressures and demands of your work take your actions “off the road” to the edge of compromise.
2.) Pay attention to the signs – There will be times when your curiosity gets the best of you, but there are signs to remind you to retreat to safety. The initial path that drifts beyond the established safety boundaries may appear harmless. You do not experience consequences, but each step of compromise draws you closer to the possibility of being injured. The “gray” areas lead to unnecessary risk and danger. Train yourself to recognize signs that prompt you to act with prudence and develop the courage to turn back to safety.
3.) Don’t jump! – Fear and hesitation can protect you. Unwise choices lead you to wrong decisions, but you still can turn back when you recognize you are on the edge. Don’t allow the momentum of the moment to influence your final choice. Once you make the wrong choice, you do not have a chance to change your mind. You prepare for impact. The accident pyramid will catch up with you if you allow pressures and demands to pave the path to unsafe behavior. Are you prepared for the consequences of being injured?
Add character to your safety program by eliminating the unwise choices. If I had never looked over the edge of that bridge, I wouldn’t have been tempted to jump. You can make the same comment about your work. Every step has the potential to create momentum. Safety character is all about stopping the unsafe momentum before it starts.
David G. Lynn, CSP, is a corporate heath, safety and environmental director, motivational speaker, published author and improvement strategist with almost 20 years of experience. David has co-authored the book 22 Ways that Will Make You a Champion for Safety and he authored a second book, Principle to Practice. He also is a frequent guest speaker at conferences and client events. For more information, visit http://www.david-lynn.com.