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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Fueling the participation factor

January 31, 2002
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This is the first of a four-part series addressing ways to get more people involved in efforts to prevent injuries on the job. The ten principles presented here are founded on accepted psychological theory and empirical research rather than common sense. Let's start with the most basic strategy of all, and probably the most important - our language.

1) Watch your language

Words shape our feelings, expectancies, attitudes and behaviors. Safety professionals commonly use words like "accident," "compliance," "regulation," "investigation," "occupant restraint" and "loss control."

Such language certainly limits voluntary participation. Who wants to get involved in an "accident investigation" that seemingly attempts to find out who didn't "comply" with some safety "regulation" and therefore contributed to a "loss"? And who feels good about putting on an "occupant restraint" in order to comply with a corporate "mandate"?

2) Shift safety from a priority to a value

Calling safety the "Number One Priority" puts management in an awkward position. Employees know safety is not number one - profit is. If the company does not make money, there are no jobs, and there's no need for occupational safety. So stop putting safety in a position to compete with profit-making. Instead, give safety a separate and special category - value. Our vision should be to make safety a value linked to every activity or priority in a work culture.

3) Take advantage of the competence motive

Stop talking about safety as if it's altruistic or self-sacrificing. This gives people an excuse for compromising safe operating procedures. "I just didn't have time to follow all of the precautions this time."

People want to be judged competent. If safety is a value - inherent to every job - disregarding any relevant safety process means the job is done incorrectly. The operator is incompetent. And remember, competence can only be improved through feedback.

4) Provide behavior-focused feedback

Practice does not make perfect. Only with appropriate feedback can we improve. In the workplace, competence-improving feedback that is objective, impersonal and specific can be delivered in three basic ways:

1) through one-on-one coaching; 2) through periodic performance appraisals (see my ISHN articles last Nov. and Dec. 2001); and 3) through group data graphs that display a work team's level of specific performance.

Whatever the method for providing directional and/or motivational feedback, the context must be positive.

5) Make feedback positive

People more often link feedback with "reprimand" than "praise." So don't expect people to naturally accept and look forward to receiving behavioral feedback. The nature of your conversation or group discussion surrounding a feedback session will determine whether such a process will be appreciated, supported and sustained. Your first feedback session needs to be predominantly positive and completely constructive.

6) Help people feel important

Negative feedback can degrade one's sense of importance, and that's disastrous for voluntary participation. Emphasize a person's positive contributions to worthwhile work. When people believe their work is genuinely appreciated, they want to improve. When they become competent at a valuable job, their sense of personal importance increases. Then, in the spirit of increasing their competence at a valuable work process, people will accept and apply relevant corrective feedback.

7) Look ahead, not back

When we have opportunities to coach or offer advice to individuals or groups, we need to move the communication from past to future and then to the present. Conversations about past experiences are pleasant and functional. They define mutual interests, attitudes or experiences and enable recognition for prior accomplishments, helping people feel important. But if you want productive change from a conversation, don't allow talk to get stuck in the past.

Move your communication from the past to a consideration of future possibilities or ideal improvement. Then bring the talk back to the present. Discuss things that can be put into effect now to bring the ideal future a step closer.

8) Set SMART goals

A conversation about progress can lead to beneficial change if SMART goals are set. The letters of SMART represent the essential components of an effective goal - Specific, Motivational, Attainable, Relevant and Trackable. Literally thousands of studies have demonstrated the power of SMART goals to improve performance at individual, group, organizational and community levels. We set a poor example when we refer to goals that are not SMART. In safety this happens whenever we say, "Zero injuries is our goal." This is not SMART; it misuses and abuses goal setting.

9) Distinguish goals from purpose

Please talk about zero injuries as a purpose or vision. "An injury-free work culture" is the ultimate result of gaining and sustaining maximum employee involvement in safety-related activities. So your purpose is to reach and maintain zero injuries. Participation is needed for various process activities that contribute to injury prevention and the attainment of a vision of "injury-free." Process activities can be defined in terms of a certain number of specific actions that need to occur in a given period of time in order to be "successful."

10) Use process measures

Keep score on the various proactive things individuals and groups do for safety. Monitor the numbers of near hits, property damage incidents and injuries reported. Track the number of corrective actions implemented and evaluated, the number of environmental and behavioral audits conducted, the number of environmental hazards eliminated, the number of safety suggestions and safety work orders submitted, and so on. Graph and post the percentage of individuals who participate in various safety-related activities, as well as the percentage of safe work environments and behaviors observed during systematic audits. This will give you an accountability system that can facilitate participation.

While these ten guidelines for fueling the participation factor are basic and readily implemented, expect some resistance - caused either by bad habits, disbelief or uncertainty that these recommendations will work. The guidelines I'll offer next month will provide ideas for reducing resistance to change as well as increasing involvement in industrial safety and health.

Note: More discussion of the strategies reviewed here can be found in Scott's new book, The Participation Factor, published by the American Society of Safety Engineers.

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