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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Calling Dr. Geller...

June 1, 2005
Dr. E Scott Geller, our “Psychology of Safety” columnist since 1990, is not a morning person. Phone his Williams Hall office in the heart of Virginia Tech’s campus before noon and you’re likely to hear this rapid-fire greeting:

“Hello I’m Scott Geller you reached my office I’m not at my desk — but I will be back soon. Leave a message please and I’ll get back with you as soon as possible — and have a safe day.”

It takes, oh, maybe seven seconds for Scott to rip through his greeting, giving you an idea of his pace and energy. The first time I phoned Scott, in the summer of 1989 for an article I was writing on “accident-prone” workers, I came away with an enhanced sense of Scott’s level of energy and enthusiasm. (Not surprisingly, the “doc” was, and still is four decades later, a rock ’n roll drummer.)

First impressions

He had me on the phone for a good 45 minutes. I got a cauliflower ear from the pressure of the receiver. There was no let up. He didn’t know who I was, what Industrial Safety & Hygiene News was, but Scott’s a trusting sort and he just rapped on. And on. I got writer’s cramp trying to keep up with him. Looking back over my scribbles (reporters never toss out their notes) I’m struck now, 16 years on, by how consistent Scott’s message about safety has been. Pick up his new book, “People-Based Safety — The Source,” a collection of his ISHN columns, and see for yourself.

His first words in that 1989 interview were, “There is no real good solid data that personality or lifestyle characteristics can predict behavior.” One thing I’d learn about Scott over the years is his passionate advocacy for “good solid data.” Many times in speeches, workshops and writings he’s railed against the lack of research running through the literature of professional safety, and the over-reliance on common sense, gut feelings and what sounds good.

Scott can hardly spit out the words “common sense” without his face crinkling up like he’s swallowed bad medicine. Common sense is bad medicine to Scott, and he’s pushed safety pros throughout his career in consulting to find the research, develop the data. Don’t wing it.

Beyond behaviorism

It’s also worth noting right from the start, in that first interview, Scott talked about “lifestyle characteristics” and “personality” — concepts beyond behavioral safety. In the 1990s he would earn the reputation as one of behavior-based safety’s gurus. Sure enough, in ISHN’s list of “people to watch” in the ’90s (October, 1989 issue), we predicted this Virginia Tech psychology professor would be traveling the country preaching a “refreshing approach to shaping safe work habits.” We called it behavior modification, a term later swept away by political correctness. At the time we didn’t think we were equating people with rats.

Scott’s background and thinking have always been broader than experimental and applied behavior analysis. In fact, in an academic paper he wrote last year, he confessed to never having an undergraduate or graduate course in behavior analysis. It was a textbook, “Case Studies in Behavior Modification,” and a visit to a state hospital, that convinced him of what he calls the “make-a-difference” success and potential of behavioral technology. Still, Scott has always strayed beyond what he describes as “a rigorous and narrow behavior-analysis perspective.”

My notes from our first interview certainly show him roaming far and wide. Scott touched on “personality dimensions,” introverts and extroverts, “perceptions of unique invulnerability,” “psychological reactance,” values and macho attitudes, employee ownership, personal indictments, intruding on personal problems, opinions and emotions, up-front assessments, nature and nurture, team players, and the influence of birth order — in addition to giving me my first lesson in the ABC (activator-behavior-consequence) model and an observation and feedback process he called DO RITE.

A positive vibe

I hung up from that conversation with a sore ear, cramped fingers, six pages of notes and a headache. But Scott hooked me with his zeal, his ideas about people and safety, why they do what they do (and what to do about it), his honesty (Interview question: “Why is behavioral safety growing?” Scott’s response: “We’re doing a lot of screaming and shouting as consultants.”), and the language he used, which seemed to offer safety a refreshingly new and positive vocabulary.

Later I called Scott back about writing a series of articles for ISHN, to begin in August, 1990. The editor in me did so with some trepidation — after all, here was an academic comfortable titling papers, “Confessions of a Behavioral Scientist with Mentalistic Vulnerability” and tossing around terms like environmental manipulators, consequence techniques and critical human components.

Plus, in 1990 the safety community was focused on OSHA, not “consequence techniques.” Recent proposals from Washington covered lockout-tagout, confined spaces and infectious diseases. There was talk of OSHA standards for vehicle safety, workplace smoking, exposure monitoring, and safety and health program requirements. Other EHS issues included rip-and-skip asbestos removal contractors; catastrophic refinery explosions in Texas; and environmental protests following the Exxon Valdez spill. (And we wonder why things seem quiet in the EHS world today…)

But Scott struck a chord with ISHN’s audience from the first article he penned. What safety pro couldn’t relate to the title of his first piece, “Fighting Human Nature”? Or these thoughts from that column:

  • “Everyone has experienced factors (events, attitudes, demands, distractors, responsibilities, circumstances, etc.) that get in the way of performing a job safely.”

  • “Since most… unsafe acts are not followed by a ‘near miss’ or injury, the unsafe behavior remains unpunished or persists.”

    Making a difference

    That was 156 columns ago now. For an editor and a columnist, that’s a long time to exchange manuscripts and still be on speaking terms. 150+ rounds with the chance to quibble over words, fight over heads, kill darlings (pet passages), change meanings and bruise egos. But Scott, for all his honors and truly profound knowledge, has been remarkably and thankfully hands-off with his copy once submitted. He’s kept the end always in mind — making a difference.

    Writing in a letter back in 1991 he put it this way: “I think my writing assignment for ISHN has benefited my conceptualization about the psychology of safety, and our subsequent communications have stimulated extensions and refinements. Thanks for the opportunity to share these ideas…”

    “These ideas” have been now cataloged, organized and updated in “People-Based Safety — The Source,” which presents a model for improving workplace safety based on acting, coaching, thinking and seeing (ACTS). Interestingly, ACTS mitigates the risk factors Scott raised in his first ISHN column 15 years ago: lack of training, unsafe work conditions, demanding circumstances, personal discomfort, physical condition (fatigue, boredom), distractions, apathy and personal attitudes.

    For Scott, it’s always been about more than behavior, more than “blame the worker.” At the end of our first interview back in ’89, he said, “I don’t want to give up on anyone.” Today there is a whole field called “positive psychology.” In that letter he wrote in ’91, Scott spoke of developing a “caring community of workers.” Today we call it “culture.”

    Optimism. Passion. Determination. It’s what keeps Scott — and safety professionals — fired up. If you don’t believe it, listen to his voice mail message. Write on, Scott.

    — Dave Johnson, Editor

    For more information on Scott Geller’s new book, “People-Based Safety™ — The Source,” and the accompanying five-part training series, “People-Based Safety™,” use any of these contact channels: www.people-based-safety.com; email: pbs@coastal.com; Ph: 888-201-8740