Beyond Duct Tape

March 28, 2003
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Dear Subscriber,

BEYOND DUCT TAPE

Why is our response so "weird" to the Department of Homeland Security's recommended counter-terrorism precautions, asks risk communication expert Peter Sandman in an insightful article - "Duct Tape Risk Communication" - posted on his Web site (http://www.psandman.com/).

Along similar lines: Why are common responses so "weird" to a safety department's recommended accident prevention precautions?

There is a connection here. . .

Read the article by Sandman and his wife, Jody Lanard, and see how many parallels you draw between Washington's efforts to communicate safety messages and alerts to the public, and your own efforts to communicate safety in the workplace. Simply substitute "safety department" for "government", "employees" for "public", and "accidents" for "terrorism".

In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we take lessons from homeland security risk communication, courtesy of Sandman's and Lanard's analysis, and refashion them into ideas to overcome resistance to your workplace safety efforts.

By the way, check out the Peter Sandman Risk Communication Web site, if you haven't already bookmarked it. You'll find excellent articles on risk communication, reputation management, and human nature - why people and companies act the way they do (outrage or apathy, transparency or stone walling) all readily applied to your accident prevention efforts.

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TYPICAL REACTIONS

How often do you make a safety suggestion and get one of these three responses from employees?

The mocking response - "You're ridiculous. That won't work. That's not the way we do things around here."

The fearful/dependent response - "We need more protection than that. Why can't the company spend more money on safety?"

The numb/counter-dependent response - "Forget it. Accidents will happen no matter what. So leave me alone."

Sandman and Lanard use these response terms to describe how the public reacted to Washington's suggestion to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting in case of a terror attack. That recommendation met with a mix of both compliance and contempt - just the fate of many of your safety directives to employees.

Washington's advice is similar to messages from your local safety department: be vigilant, take prudent precautions, and go about your business, get your work done. It's all said in our own best interest, so why do we rebel?

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SAFETY REBELLIONS

Books and articles have been written for decades explaining why employees resist safety suggestions, precautions, rules, and so on. Sandman and Lanard offer several explanations for resistance to counter-terrorism tips, which we'll apply to safety:

Fatalism - Accidents will happen. Nothing will help.

Distrust - The company lies. Management doesn't really know anything about safety. They have hidden agendas.

Denial - Accidents won't happen to me. I don't want to think about it.

Hopelessness - Life is a grind, man. Leave me alone.

Projection - I'm just a small cog in the wheel in this big company. I'm powerless, really. But since these feelings depress me, I'll project them on the safety department, which I'll call powerless and inept.

Failure of imagination - Who, me? I don't have anything to contribute to safety around here.

Most important, rebelling against homeland security suggestions reflects "an infantile yearning to be allowed to stay passive while the government takes care of us all," say Sandman and Lanard.

Hmmm. . . Sounds like employees, supervisors and managers telling a safety director: "Listen, safety is your problem. Make OSHA go away. It's your job to protect us."

"You're here to save us. . . don't make us responsible. . . find and fix the hazards for us." Safety and health pros hear this all the time, as they battle against the inertia of passivity. How do you engage employees? How do you get buy-in?

Beneath passive resistance runs a deep undercurrent of anger, even rage. In terms of the public reacting to terrorism precautions, the largely unspoken rage is this: 9/11 took away our security blanket, say Sandman and Lanard.

A backlash - open resistance or quiet apathy - against safety campaigns in the workplace can be rooted in anger. Anger that there is no job security anymore. No loyalty. No guarantees in the age of layoffs, shutdowns, and relocations.

Appeals for safety can run smack into these feelings. Safety becomes a magnet for frustrations. "You want me on the safety committee, for this company? What are they doing for me? Maybe moving to China. Cutting health benefits. . ."

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FEELS LIKE FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is like the nation's safety department. Providing education and training. Making sure we're prepared for emergencies. Coordinating responses to incidents. Reducing the risk of loss. Providing advice and resources. . .

Like your safety department, FEMA is invisible until an accident occurs, a calamity, and all hell breaks loose. Until then, no one pays attention. But after disaster strikes, everyone accuses it of not doing enough.

Sound familiar?

The new Department of Homeland Security also bears a resemblance to your typical workplace safety department. Urging precautions. Issuing alerts and directives. Like a safety director, homeland security czar Tom Ridge is sometimes accused of being an alarmist, sometimes of giving us a false sense of security. His suggestions sometimes sound simplistic. Come on, Tom, a lot of this security stuff is plain common sense.

Tom doesn't fight apathy. He goes up against outrage, fear, and denial, according to Sandman and Lanard. To the two authors, there is a distinct difference between apathy and denial - one that safety pros should consider.

Apathy is insufficient concern, a matter of not caring. Denial is actually fueled by too much concern. The outcome of a workplace accident can be so traumatic - death; disfigurement; loss of limbs, sight, and income - who wants to think it about?

Signs of denial:

  • Demands for unrealistic reassurance - Anything other than zero incidents is a failure of the safety department.

  • Panicky reactions - Ducking the bigger issues by hyperventilating over hyped hazards like mold.

  • Projection/displacement - Worrying about far-fetched risks (anthrax) in place of real risks (climbing a ladder).

    Apathy is insufficient fear. Denial is repressed fear, writes Sandman.

    Which are you dealing with in your workplace?

    To paraphrase Sandman and Lanard: When employees (or the public) ridicule safety precautions, which the safety department (or the government) is right to be suggesting, it reveals more about their state of mind (apathy? denial?) than it does the wisdom of those precautions.

    But. . . it also calls into question your skill, as a safety professional, in anticipating and addressing your employees' state of mind. Are you using your emotional intelligence - your ability to empathize with your audience's feelings and fears, apathy or denial?

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    WHAT TO DO

    So about these weird responses to your safety suggestions - denial, disdain, distrust, anger, just leave me alone, it's not my job, I don't know enough to help - what should you do?

    Expect more out of your people. Ask more of them. That's Sandman's and Lanard's advice to Washington when issuing terror alert information.

    Imagine George Bush as the nation's safety director when he says: "We're trying to protect you. We're doing everything in our power to make sure the homeland (or the workplace) is secure." A safety director should say those things. That's setting the tone. But the safety director can't do it all. No one is motivated or energized when nothing more is asked of them.

    Self-reliance, though, can be inspiring. "Your conformity explains nothing," said Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself."

    But self-reliance comes at a price. Self-reliant safety attitudes and behavior require resources. Employees must be advised about safety information sources, Web sites, www.osha.gov, etc. They need detailed recommendations. Training. Job safety analyses. Audit reports. Near-miss records. Injury statistics and trends. To do more to protect yourself, you need to learn more.

    And self-reliant safety is not just for individuals, as Sandman and Lanard point out in terms of emergency preparedness. Communities can be energized through self-reliance, they say - and so can workplaces. It's about building a culture where coworkers care for one another's safety without constant prodding from the safety department.

    How do you pull this off?

    Tap into human nature. In terms of emergency preparedness, Sandman and Lanard say the government should "recruit and harness our strong desire to help." The same applies to safety. Don't try to motivate with canned safety boilerplate. That's not personal, it pushes people away. Get specific with your instructions; customize them to the workforce, to individual departments or jobs.

    Will everyone want to do all this? Absolutely not, say Sandman and Lanard. Give your advice about precautions on three levels, they advise.

  • A minimum level of compliance that you would expect of everyone, perhaps OSHA requirements.

  • A higher level that you think is worth the extra effort.

  • A still higher level of recommendations for employees who are especially alarmed, especially interested in safety, or especially at risk.

    For example: everyone walking through the plant must wear at least visitors' safety specs. Those with jobs on the floor must wear Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) certified safety specs with sideshields. And those exposed to flying sparks or splash must wear goggles and/or face shields.

    "Asking more of people is largely about asking them to implement appropriate precautions," say Sandman and Lanard.

    It's more than that, too. It means asking, in our case with workplace safety, employees to bear the inconveniences and resentments that can accompany safety rules compliance. Most people can handle it, according to Sandman and Lanard. They just need some gentle persuasion from a safety department (or government agency in terms of terrorism precautions) that believes employees can indeed bear it and wants them to try.

    What about employees who can't handle the inconveniences? The resisters who don't want to try? "Those who are most deeply in denial may need to be allowed to stay there until they feel ready to face up" to what can happen, say Sandman and Lanard. In the workplace, what can happen are the ugly consequences of working unsafe.

    And those who are "ungovernable and intolerable", as Sandman and Lanard describe? They suggest professional help. On the job, the unmanageable are treated to the serious business of warnings verbal and written, probation, and finally, if necessary, being shown the door.

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    12 STEPS

    It's a smooth translation, taking Sandman's and Lanard's advice to the government for communicating terrorism precautions and applying it to job safety. We'll paraphrase:

    1) Acknowledge the inconveniences, the downsides of safety. Yes, PPE can be uncomfortable. Yes, OSHA rules can be irritating. Sure, hazcom refresher training once a year stretches your patience. But honesty promotes acceptance and helps win people over.

    2) Express empathetic wishes. Examples: "I wish we in the safety department had all the answers for you." "I wish we could guarantee a completely hazard-free workplace."

    3) Mention the unmentionable. Accidents, like terror attacks, are indeed a serious possibility. Keep the odds in perspective, keep your instructions realistic.

    4) Share the dilemma. Be honest. It's not easy finding solutions to every safety hazard. Ask employees for their ideas. Set up a system, procedures, for receiving, assessing, and publicizing their suggestions. Concede that the safety department does not have all the wisdom.

    5) Concede, too, that some safety information you share really isn't useful. Case in point - many material safety data sheets.

    6) Confess that some of your safety requirements are, how would you say, nerdish? Awkward? Yes, not everyone looks good in a full-face respirator. Yes, observing a coworker's "behavior" can be embarrassing. Yes, it can be hard to step forward and report a near-miss, a stupid, careless mistake. Being "real" makes you more credible.

    7) Take the jokes in stride. A little mockery, humor can diffuse tension or resentment over having to comply. It is part of the adjustment.

    8) Take resistance in stride, too. There are bound to be employees who think the safety department is naive, fanatical, or intrusive. Employees who criticize your priorities as upside-down wrong. Or who argue that you understate certain risks. There is more than one way to run a safety program. Air out the differences. Let people vent and then calm down.

    9) Tell stories. Story-telling is a profound vehicle for teaching safety lessons. Forget the technical jargon and canned videos. Stories are personal. Powerful. Vivid. Have your workers talk about overcoming their fears or denial or apathy about safety. About suffering the consequences of accidents. About their near-accidents. About the value of PPE, lockout procedures, confined space permits.

    10) Address your full range of audiences. You'll always have different target audiences that represent your stakeholders - the fearful, the skeptical, the mocking, the over-dependent. They can be employees, supervisors, and managers. Know how to engage, admonish, support, and acknowledge. "The safety department doesn't have all the answers. We need your help. You've got the experience."

    11) Anticipate mistakes and failures. Sooner or later they happen, no matter how hard we try. Be realistic. Sandman and Lanard advise the government to remind the public that the goal is a "safer" homeland, not a "safe" homeland. You can say the same for the workplace.

    12) Strive for balance, the middle ground. The goal: integrate safety precautions into the way things are done. The notion that everything must be sacrificed for safety's sake is naive. It won't fly in the face of profit goals, production deadlines, shareholder demands. But the excuse, "That's not the way things done around here" is also not acceptable. Leaving employees vulnerable and at risk to hazards and accidents when resources and precautions are available cannot be justified - morally or legally.

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    NOTE TO SUBSCRIBERS: ISHN's e-newsletter returns to a bi-weekly schedule with our next edition, which will be sent to you April 11.

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

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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

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