ISHN

PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Are we having fun yet?

August 29, 2003
Visit the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle and you'll immediately understand the "Fish" philosophy. You'll see fish flying through the air between pairs of fishmongers, especially skilled at throwing and catching fish in creative ways. Some-times customers try their hand at catching fish. You'll hear laughter from everyone - sellers, buyers, and numerous onlookers. This team of fishmongers transformed their routine jobs into an exciting and inspirational culture by adding some fun into their daily operations.

The "fun" philosophy of the Seattle fishmongers is disseminated worldwide. "Fish: A remarkable way to boost morale and improve results," by Stephen C. Lundin is the story of a fictional company that transformed itself by applying lessons learned from Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market. The story has evolved into "Fish Tales" - a book and audio series featuring dozens of real-life examples of companies that increased morale and productivity and decreased burnout and turnover by adopting the "Fish" philosophy.

In this article, I want to apply the four tenants of the "Fish" philosophy to workplace safety: 1) have more fun; 2) own the process; 3) choose your attitude; and 4) make someone's day.

Breaking the routine

It's not difficult to splash a dash of humor into daily business routines. If you fly Southwest Airlines, a client of the consulting firm that sells the "Fish" philosophy, you'll likely see examples of routine-breaking humor that reduces the distress of air travel. I once heard a Southwest Airlines flight attendant ask, "Has anyone lost a black wallet with five 20-dollar bills?" When the passengers looked up, he added, "Now that I have your attention, let me tell you about the safety features on this aircraft." Later he announced, "I'm about to make the flight attendants more attractive. We are dimming the lights for night travel."

Joanne Dean, safety director of The Gale Construction Company, told me how she attempted to break up the serious fa?e in the large reception area of a major printing company. She periodically visited this New Jersey business and noted how solemn everyone seemed. Most would not look up to give new visitors eye contact. Even Joanne's friendly "hello" was often ignored.

On one particular day, however, Joanne was not to be overlooked. She entered the lobby and skillfully performed three cartwheels across the reception area. She then took a bow to the applause of many onlookers. But, of course, there were some who never noticed. For these individuals, it takes more than a few athletic cartwheels to break the routine.

You don't have to be an athlete or gymnast to add some fun to your work group. I've started off a few university meetings with laughter by placing a rubber dog nose over my own nose. This small makeover makes any face comical and is sure to bring a welcomed laugh. My dog nose is conservative compared to other fun items available in the standard novelty shop. You could wear duck feet or an entire chicken suit to work - on casual Friday, of course.

Figure 1

Loosen up

Injury prevention is serious business - no doubt. But can't safety be more fun? Unfortunately, our language puts us at a disadvantage. How can an "accident investigation" be pleasant? How can a safety meeting be positive when it starts with a display of statistics showing a significant lost-time injury rate?

I was recently reminded of the up-tight mindset of some safety pros when I was asked to remove a number of my PowerPoint cartoons from a keynote address at a company safety conference. The committee members themselves had no problem with the illustrations, but they presumed the CEO and senior staff would be offended. I complied with the request, of course, but I was tempted to present these cartoons anyway in order to show the safety committee that top management can loosen up and have fun too!

The most objectionable of the discarded slides is presented in Figure 1. If this illustration offends you, I apologize. I use it to show how the mindset of optimism or "looking for the positive" can affect a person's perception, what they see or don't see.

Fun with incentives

Safety incentives can add some fun to the work culture. Delivering trinkets or mementos for safety-related activities, perhaps with a game format like "Safety Bingo" or "At-Risk Jeopardy," connects positive vibes to injury prevention. In this way, safety incentives do more for attitude than behavior. They link positive playful feelings with the ongoing extra effort needed to maintain an injury-free workplace.

Once an employee challenged the safety incentive program I helped to create with the statement, "Giving safety trinkets for safety activities is Mickey Mouse. I wouldn't subject my granddaughter to such nonsense." I retorted with, "I love Mickey Mouse and I bet your granddaughter loves him too."

Further discussion among workers revealed that many of them presumed the purpose of the incentives was "to modify behavior." This was insulting. A line worker added, "We don't need trinkets to motivate us to be safe. And we naturally want to prevent the possibility of personal injury to our coworkers."

By introducing and encouraging the mindset of "incentives for fun" rather than "incentives for behavior modification," I reduced employee resistance and got the buy-in needed to move ahead with the safety incentive program. Then, when the employees got fully engaged in the playful routine-breaking process of earning and spending behavior-based safety credits, they adopted an ownership attitude regarding behavior-based safety incentives at their plant.

The value of positive vibes

Injury-prevention is certainly a critically important challenge - one we need to take seriously. But serious work can still be fun. We often take the fun out of safety with our compliance and enforcement-focused language, and with an evaluation system that tracks failures rather than successes. When we do implement an achievement-based incentive/reward program, we insult people with the rationale that the program was designed to modify their behavior.

Safety language can be more positive. Safety performance can be readily evaluated by counting success stories instead of failures. And a safety incentive program can be implemented to boost morale rather than to motivate behavior change. You will choose to make these changes when you realize the value in interjecting more fun and playfulness into industrial safety.

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