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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Put a positive spin on safety

March 1, 2004
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In my ISHN article last month, I defined four personality states that influence motivation and behavior. These were described as states rather than traits, meaning they are situation-specific and malleable. It’s possible to change an individual’s outlook from one that’s detrimental to safety success to one that facilitates desired performance.

The most productive and healthy personality state is “success seeker,” according to systematic research and basic intuition. With their high expectancy for success and low fear of failure, success seekers respond to setbacks with optimistic persistence, self-assurance and a sense of personal control.

It’s obvious safety pros need to find ways to facilitate success-seeking outlooks. The more safety success seekers in your organization, the greater the probability of achieving and maintaining an injury-free workplace.

In this article, let’s consider ways to increase the number of safety success seekers in a work group.

All about loss

Traditional safety programs emphasize failure avoidance over positive achievements:

  • When the key indices are number of recordable lost-time injuries, the focus is on avoiding failure.

  • Safety rewards or financial bonuses based on “days without an injury” make failure avoidance a primary motivator.

  • When companies are ranked according to their OSHA-recordable injury rates, a reactive failure-avoidance stance takes precedence over success seeking.

  • If lost-time injuries seem to arouse the most attention to safety, avoiding failure is promoted.

  • If management considers “injury investigation” the key job responsibility of the company safety pro, avoiding failure gets priority status.

  • When managers summarize safety performance with injury statistics and loss-control numbers, they put clear and obvious emphasis on avoiding failure.

    No wonder a failure-avoiding state is often the prominent motivation of workplace safety. And if failures (or injuries) keep occurring in spite of people’s best efforts to avoid them, a mindset of “failure acceptance” can develop. Of course, this apathetic and helpless perspective stifles participation in any safety-improvement effort.

    Achievement-based accountability

    The obvious antidote is to focus on safety achievement rather than injury avoidance. Easier said than done, I admit. With quality production, positive consequences are inherent with ongoing work activities. People can usually see evidence of achievement when contributing to the production of a quality commodity or service. Plus, the scoring system for the productivity side of an organization is typically given in achievement terms. Not so for safety.

    The only way to put an achievement spin on safety is to define proactive things to do for injury prevention, and then hold people accountable for achieving them. An achievement-based accountability system should put more focus on positive consequences for accomplishment, from interpersonal recognition to group celebrations. Plus, your safety scoring system should be based on proactive measures — activities accomplished to prevent injury.

    Imagine the alternatives

    Imagine a safety meeting that begins with a presentation of various process accomplishments for injury prevention. You might discuss:

    • The number of environmental hazards removed;
    • “Near-miss” reports reviewed;
    • Safety audits completed;
    • Interpersonal observation and feedback sessions conducted;
    • Safety suggestions received and implemented; and,
    • Percentage of safe behaviors observed per work team.

    Moreover, imagine the meeting facilitator asking participants to state publicly what they have done for safety since the last meeting. Imagine that work teams are not ranked according to negative-based injury records, but are recognized for what they do to prevent personal injury. And imagine the safety portion of a performance appraisal including a checklist of safety accomplishments rather than total recordable injury rate.

    With these transitions from traditional safety, it’s not difficult to imagine cultivating an achievement mindset toward safety — and increasing the number of “safety success seekers.”

    SIDEBAR 1: Who are you?

    Those four states introduced last month were derived from a two-dimensional matrix that categorized people according to whether they work to succeed or avoid failure in a particular situation.

    When we work primarily to achieve success, we are 1) “success seekers,” as opposed to 2) “failure avoiders” who are motivated by fear of failure. As 3) “overstrivers” we are driven to avoid failure by working in overdrive to succeed. In this state, we are not “happy campers” but experience skepticism, low emotional control, high anxiety, and unstable self-esteem. The 4) “failure accepter,” is a person who expects failure regardless of personal effort and is resigned to apathy or indifference.

    Do you know people who are failure avoiders or failure accepters with regard to workplace safety? How would you classify yourself? Does your classification vary according to the environmental context or the individuals on your work team? Are there more safety success seekers in situations where there is more positive participation for safety?

    SIDEBAR 2: Wouldn’t it be nice?

    Midway through my safety leadership presentation for NASA (at the Langley Air Force Base) my Powerpoint screen went blank. The audience was silent as I tried to solve the problem. As a computer technician reached the front of the room, I noticed the power cord from my laptop was not plugged in. The battery could support only the first 45 minutes of my talk.

    When I plugged in the cord, the slide show started up at the very point it had stopped. The audience clapped enthusiastically. I couldn’t help but thank everyone for recognizing my success at solving a problem. I also thanked them for not criticizing or complaining when the screen went blank. Then I acknowledged the key point of this article. Wouldn’t it be nice if in safety we gave more attention to solving safety problems than to reacting negatively after an injury occurs? If we did, we’d increase the number of safety success seekers in our organization and come closer to achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace.

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