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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Integrating safety into every routine

February 28, 2003
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People want to work safely all the time when they believe their jobs are important and that safety is a value integral to competent performance. You can improve job competence by helping people make safe work practices and hazard elimination integral to their everyday work routines.

But what does it mean to make something integral?

"Integral" is defined in my American Heritage Dictionary as "essential or necessary for completeness." Let's explore this meaning and its connection to occupational safety and health. Perhaps this will inspire new ways of teaching safety and achieving an injury-free workplace. First, let's review the difference between a priority and a value.

Priority versus value

Years ago in the October 1991 issue of ISHN, I explained the difference between a "priority" and a "value" by asking readers to reflect on how they get ready for work in the morning. After getting out of bed we usually follow a regular routine before leaving the house. Many of these "get-ready" behaviors are considered priorities - they are important, but not always essential.

Imagine getting up late. Do you shift your priorities? You might skip your stretching or exercise routine, a shower, or even breakfast. But one set of behaviors will never get compromised, because they reflect a value rather than a priority. Yes, I'm talking about getting dressed. As young children we are taught to always "cover up" before going out. That's a value.

Value-based behaviors are not "add-ons," "after thoughts" or even part of a "proactive program." Rather, they are activities incorporated naturally into a task and deemed indispensable for effectiveness. In a word, these behaviors are "integral."

How can we help people relate to the real meaning of "integral?" Let's consider how we develop and maintain interpersonal relationships.

An integral relationship

Most people experience the excitement of developing a new personal relationship. Some of these are considered critical additions to one's life - a gift that adds substantial happiness and a sense of personal fulfillment. You adjust your daily routine to make this new relationship a priority in your life. But we don't always make a relationship integral.

Many circumstances can get in the way: environmental and time constraints, previous and current relationships, and communication barriers. Often family relationships are not integral, leading to conflict, turmoil, and disparaging separations.

Some children are viewed as an addition to a family, rather than an integral component, for example. Babysitters are hired, day-care deliveries made, and meal times adjusted to handle an extra mouth to feed. Some quality time might be spent with children, but what are the parents' perceptions?

Do they look forward to and plan for their limited quality time with children (and with each other)? Or, is their day so occupied with job requirements that time with family is unanticipated and merely an "add-on" to a busy day?

Interpersonal relationships improve and persevere to the extent they become integral to your everyday existence. Opportunities for interpersonal communication, comfort, and intimacy are perceived as integral - more than an extra "gift" or "positive reinforcer." Your thoughts, fantasies, and even communication with others support and envision opportunities to build and enjoy a relationship. This happens in spite of a hectic schedule that limits occasions for relationship-building and one-on-one appreciation.

Relevance to safety

Let's apply this discussion to safety. In an injury-free workplace, safety is incorporated into every aspect of a person's workday. When safety is truly a value, it is not an extra responsibility or a supplementary set of requirements.

Making safety a value is as challenging as cultivating the best kind of relationship. It's not easy to do. But the extensive time and effort needed to make this happen are investments that reap maximum long-term benefits. And the more you procrastinate in making relevant behaviors integral - to safety or to relationships - the more difficult it can be to achieve the best. Some delays lead to barriers that are extremely formidable to overcome.

Matter of balance

It's not unusual for personal relationships to be out of balance. One person contributes more than the other. Why? One views the relationship as "integral" while the other considers it an "add-on." This imbalance often fosters emotional upheaval, and frequently ends with someone getting hurt.

Can you see the connection to safety? How often do safety leaders experience this imbalance when attempting to reduce the possibility of personal injury? Actually, safety is often perceived as an interpersonal confrontation: one person considers safety as integral to the job, the other views it as unnecessary. Many who act as if safety is only an extra requirement get lucky and dodge injury, but not everyone. Some get hurt because they don't perceive safety as a value integral to every task of the competent worker.

I hope you'll use your own personal example to teach the concept of "integral" and illustrate its critical role in making safety a "value." If genuine, your relationship example will undoubtedly portray how challenging it is to reach this level of safety excellence. But your example can also show how rewarding "integral" can be.

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