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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: What I've learned from surviving cancer

May 30, 2003
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In my ISHN column last June I disclosed my prostate cancer and drew parallels between a cancer diagnosis and an occupational injury. Then, in October, my ISHN article revealed similarities and differences between recovering from cancer surgery versus an occupational injury. In this article, I draw parallels between my strategies for continuing to survive cancer and those for achieving an injury-free workplace. These suggestions are founded on empirical results, not common sense. The data were obtained by Greg Anderson, author of "Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do" (Plume, 1999).

In 1984, Mr. Anderson was diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer, and was told he only had 30 days to live. Refusing to accept this hopeless state, he searched for individuals who had survived cancer that doctors labeled "terminal." He looked for common patterns among more than 500 interviews, and from these he derived his own action plan.

Here I relate the eight most important strategies, and explain their relevance to industrial safety.

1) Start with conventional treatment

Anderson found that more than 96 percent of the survivors he surveyed adopted a treatment plan founded on recognized conventional Western medical protocols. They demanded hard evidence that a certain medical treatment worked.

Likewise, effective safety pros do not base their safety processes on common sense, sales pitches, or hearsay. They benchmark for empirical evidence that certain techniques work.

2) Take personal control

Anderson reports that cancer survivors "have a refreshing sense of skepticism about 'just-think-positive' solutions." They are tough-minded realists with a healthy outlook on life. They don't deny the negative consequences associated with a lack of personal involvement in wellness. Active involvement is essential.

Similarly, safety leaders realize injury prevention demands never-ending attention. They maintain focus and self-motivation by imagining the most negative consequences that could occur if they don't stay actively involved.

3) Exercise for fitness & awareness

Heavily sedated, weak, and emaciated, Greg Anderson found it painful to move. But his telephone contacts voiced a consistent refrain - exercise. So, Greg exercised through the pain. Starting with simple arm movements, he progressed to short walking routines and eventually to a daily exercise regimen of stretching, push-ups, sit-ups, and a 30-minute walk. Today, Anderson believes "exercise ranked second only to developing a belief that recovery was possible" in starting him on the road to recovery and total wellness.

This advice is not new to the safety pro. "Fit for work" is a slogan we all should take seriously. Leading companies begin the workday with brief stretching routines, and provide facilities and incentives for employee exercise programs.

As the workforce gets older and more years are expected (or allowed) before retirement, we can anticipate the physical condition of workers to become a more significant contributor to workplace injuries.

4) Maintain a sense of purpose

In my ISHN column last October, I related how my goal to contribute to the Professional Development Conference (PDC) of the American Society for Safety Engineers (ASSE) fueled my recovery process. Just 15 days after a radical retropubic prostectomy, I traveled to Nashville to give a day-long pre-conference workshop and keynote address at the ASSE PDC. I was determined to make myself physically capable for the post-surgery trip.

Anderson reports that cancer survivors perceive they are needed - that their lives have special purposes. "Many are energized by an inner, even transcendent, life mission." But the author adds, "Survivors balance this profound idea of life purpose with a lighter, more playful attitude of fun for fun's sake."

Doesn't this advice ring true for all of us, whether overcoming a physical illness, struggling with interpersonal conflicts and disappointments, or dealing with the daily challenges of safety management? With the vision of an injury-free workplace, safety leaders set process goals relevant to their actively caring mission.

5) Nurture supportive relationships

From my cancer diagnosis to recovery, support from family, friends, colleagues, and students made success possible. People gave me purpose to get beyond traditional treatment and to get back to my pre-cancer lifestyle. I became more aware of the value of relationships with other people.

Anderson found that "cancer survivors invest more time and emotional energy in relationships that nurture them and invest less in those that are toxic."

Safety leaders realize the critical role of interpersonal trust and support in meeting the daily challenges of injury prevention. People must rely on others to recognize and eliminate environmental hazards, to observe their own work behaviors and provide constructive feedback, to report personal experiences (like near hits), and to offer suggestions for improving any aspect of the work culture related to safety success.

Bottom line: Achieving and maintaining an injury-free workplace requires the interdependent support of every employee, independent of one's status in the organizational hierarchy.

6) Raise nutritional IQ and eat responsibly

Most survivors of cancer alter their eating behavior. While there is no universal agreement regarding what specific dietary changes are called for, survivors raise their nutritional intelligence and eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They adopt a mindset of eating for body nutrition rather than pleasure.

From a safety perspective, this relates to being "fit for work." Obviously, the food we eat can result in a number of physiological and psychological states related to injury potential. How often have you felt tired and sluggish after a meal? This can hinder environmental awareness, mental alertness, personal judgment, and reaction time. A holistic approach to injury prevention should include basic lessons in the nutritional gains and liabilities of various foods.

7) Improve awareness & control of emotions

Cancer survivors become more aware and accepting of their emotions, both positive and negative. More importantly, they work hard at managing their emotions. Rather than letting emotions control their lives, survivors adopt strategies like mental imagery, meditation, reframing, supportive self-talk, and positive affirmations to gain emotional comfort and well-being.

Less emotional turmoil means less distress, greater reality awareness, and more opportunity for positive emotions. And positive emotions in a workforce lead to interdependency and actively caring between people. Positive emotions lead to increases in self-esteem, optimism, and a sense of belonging - and boost the likelihood a person will actively care for the safety or health of another individual.

8) Discover meaningful inner peace

Cancer survivors undergo a spiritual transformation. This is not about religion. In fact, many survivors reject traditional religious doctrine and practices. Rather, according to Anderson, "It is a radical but serene response to recovery and to life." Many survivors discover the divinity within themselves, achieving inner peace.

So now we have SQ (spiritual intelligence) as well as the emotional intelligence (EQ) discussed above. People with SQ perceive meaningful purpose underlying their actions, and this motivates them to be the best they can be. But the meaningfulness of everyday behavior is often not evident, making the search for SQ difficult for some people.

It's easy to find meaningfulness in the daily routines of effective safety leaders. Although you can't count the number of injuries prevented by implementing or supporting a certain safety process, the potential is clear and meaningful. And when you persuade others to substitute safe behavior for easier at-risk behavior, you increase their EQ. Helping boost a person's EQ is a meaningful accomplishment, nourishing your own SQ.

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