What About Willpower?

March 12, 2004
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Dear Subscriber,

WHAT ABOUT WILLPOWER?

Much of your work in safety comes down to changing thinking and habits — of managers, supervisors and employees. Faced with this challenge in any of life's venues, trying to change something about ourselves or our kids, perhaps, it's tempting to follow the siren’s call for the instant pay-off. Patients tell the shrink, forget the couch, just give me the pill. A men’s magazine promises: "Fast abs: Get a 6-pack in 7 minutes." A self-help book will show you how to hit "all your business, personal and financial targets with absolute certainty."

Sure enough, some safety training products come with the same fast, soon, and certain claims of relief. Employees will easily internalize the message! Show the video, hand out the work books, ask a few questions — anyone can do it! Watch your injury rate dramatically decline within weeks!

By the way, why is it never, "Management will easily internalize the message"?

In this edition of ISHN’s e-newsletter, we examine the growing popularity of one safety elixir — "Be your own best safety manager!" — and the willpower it takes to make it happen.

NIRVANA

Ah, for every employee to be their own safety supervisor — safety nirvana, like reaching zero incidents.

It's hard to dispute the logic. Like the small band of beleaguered OSHA inspectors, there never has been and never will be enough safety managers on the payroll to watch over everyone.

You can't contest the values, either. In our culture, self-reliance and independence go all the way back to Jamestown. Responsibility for safety must begin at home.

Plus, consider the spirit of the times. Many businesses run as lean as grimacing marathoners these days. Downsizing a generation of middle managers makes the strategy of "empowering" employees all the more urgent. In 2004, 55 percent of ISHN readers will assign more safety tasks to line employees, according to our most recent White Paper survey.

Clearly, workplace safety programs are moving from a more external style of management to greater self-management. But self-mastery of safety takes willpower. Is the will to succeed in safety evident on your shop floor?

OSHA is banking more on self-control and self-initiative. In the past 10-15 years it has eased up on standards-setting and promoted volunteer alliances and more self-policing. The agency no longer is the external force to be reckoned with that it was in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. That's fine with many safety pros who do have the will, and the resources, to succeed on their own; they found Washington standards-writers often missing out on shop floor realities, and see OSHA's helping hand as more useful.

Industry is placing a similar bet. Most large businesses began cutting headquarters headcounts for environmental health and safety in the 1980s and into the 90s. Staffs continue to be thinned out, and many corporate EHS departments are now no longer the dominant drivers of workplace practices. In the move from command and control to advise and consent, EHS advisors from corporate stress values and coach the psychology of safety to win the hearts and minds of employees, laying the foundation for employees to become their own safety managers.

But once employees become willing participants, how do you keep their willpower alive?

SELF-CENTERED SAFETY

Making workplace safety less about hierarchies and bureaucrats reduces overhead and saves money. But there are other factors driving the trend to a more self-centered style of safety management.

Human nature, for instance. People don't like being told how to act, no surprise there, particularly when it means strapping on a bulky respirator or adhering to inconvenient procedures, and especially when the benefits are hardly discernible. "I'll be in out and of this tank. What permit? I don't smell anything." So the safety supervisor walks off and the mask comes off. What to do? Get the employee to adopt the supervisor's mindset for safety.

Today’s mobile and fragmented workforce also demands more self-management skills. Work itself is decentralized in the new economy — sprawling factories and uniformed clock-punchers replaced by Kinkos clerks, FedEx deliverymen, and telecommuters operating with little or no supervision.

One more trend: OSHA-approved Voluntary Protection Program work sites have achieved something of a cult status (now numbering almost 1,000) and their promoters advocate "operationalizing" safety. That’s consultant-speak for delegating — transferring tasks like auditing, investigating incidents and training from the safety office to safety committees. VPP sites have learned, and now preach with fervor, that this hand-off must happen if you want safety activity integrated into daily routines and a culture of safety consciousness.

Faced with these developments and lessons learned, to expect the "safety man" to be the alpha and omega of workplace protection — and the sole source of safety willpower on a site — is throwback 1970s thinking.

Unfortunately, in work sites that only equate safety with compliance, many safety pros might as well still be wearing bellbottoms.

Executed with the care and patience required to develop and sustain a will to succeed, empowering employees can make safety programs more vigorous, realistic, and effective. But in safety as elsewhere (just check out our annual New Year's resolutions), we often underestimate the willpower required to change beliefs, attitudes and habits.

Or we assume determination alone will keep our batteries charged.

Next week — The care and feeding of willpower.

Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

To keep receiving industry updates, renew your ISHN print edition subscription at www.renewforfree.com

For new subscriptions to ISHN, visit www.ishn.com and click on "Subscriptions" beneath the "Services" header on the home page.

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    Among the books you’ll find:

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    WE NEED YOU!

    Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?

    Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.

    Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.

    If any of these topics interest you — or if you have other ideas — e-mail editor Dave Johnson at djsafe@bellatlantic.net.

    We will also consider articles you’ve already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.

    Thanks.

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