SAFETY IS NO JOKE

August 17, 2005
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Dear Subscriber,

Of all the training programs aimed at improving employee skills - think sales, customer service, maintenance techniques, etc. - or raising awareness - think sexual harassment, diversity and discrimination, etc. - none are as over-the-top as some safety training programs when it comes to mixing blood, gore and slapstick. In one 23-minute video, for example, we counted 19 scenes of workers cartwheeling down steps, stumbling over cords, getting bonked in the head. You get the idea.

These sorts of training programs have been successful sellers in the safety market for years. They can be funny, dramatic, usually not boring, and make the point that, yes, accidents do happen to everyday people doing everyday jobs. But it's a thin line between entertaining employees and turning them into the Three Stooges.

In this edition of ISHN's E-Zine, we take a seat in the back of a fictional safety training class to describe how crossing the line can turn safety into a joke that no one - employees, management and safety pros themselves - will find funny.

YOUR INNER KLUTZ

"Let's see a show of hands," says the instructor. "Be honest. How many of you feel like you're a bit of a klutz sometimes?"

The students look around the room. A few hands hesitantly go up.

"Somewhere in all of us, a klutz lurks," says the instructor. "I want to read you a quote from a doctor. 'We're all clumsy to some extent. For the average person, a normal amount of clumsiness might be one or two awkward incidents a day'."

The instructor continues: "Now this doc is a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, so he's no quack. And think about what he's saying. One or two stumbles a day, when they happen on the job, can mean safety problems."

The instructor turns down the lights and pops a video in the VCR. "This little film shows what can happen. I put it together myself."

"Get to Know Your Inner Klutz," reads the title frame. A quick montage follows: Chevy Chase doing his President Ford stumblebum imitation in the Oval Office, tripping over the rug. Cartoon Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right falling off his horse. Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau walking into a closet he takes for an exit.

Then the scene shifts to the workplace. A narrator intones: "Why are people injured and killed on the job everyday? It all comes down to people stop paying attention to what they're doing."

In rapid-fire sequence the video shows a forklift operator backing off the edge of a loading dock. A warehouse worker trips over a sewer pipe. A maintenance worker pulls the wrong switch and electrocutes himself. A carpenter dangles precariously from a roof ledge. A painter plummets from a ladder. A machinist gets hit in the eye with a drill bit. Ambulances come racing, sirens wailing, lights flashing. Covered bodies are carted away. A wife at home picks up the ringing phone, gasps, and begins to cry. She gathers up her confused little tykes and hugs them tight. The scene fades to black.

ALL ABOUT EMPLOYEES

The instructor flicks the lights back on. "The point is," he says, "we all slip up. We do things without thinking. We put it on auto-pilot. We cut corners. It's human nature. And the consequences can be terrible."

A hand goes up in the middle of the room. "I admit I'm a bit of a klutz," says one of the students. "But I've always been that way. Ask my family. There's nothing I can do about it. I probably inherited it."

The instructor turns sympathetic. "But there is something you can do about it. Take responsibility. Safety is about the decisions you make, the choices you make. Stop, look and listen to everything. Be mindful!"

Another hand shoots up. "But you're making us all out to be oafs. What about the deadlines that force us to rush? Or the super who eggs us on to cut corners? Or the burned-out bulbs on stairwells that are never replaced, or broken machine guards that aren't fixed?"

The instructor pauses. "If you read the safety literature, time and again you see that 80 percent or 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error. Eyes not on task, mind not on task..."

The student interrupts: "But can't it be the supervisor or the plant manager whose mind is not on safety? Or whose eyes are on getting product shipped to customers more than anything else. Why doesn't your video show when a super looks the other way?"

Now the instructor turns impatient. "Let's be real. Who pays for safety training? You think our guys upstairs want us showing videos that make managers out to be ogres?"

FEEL THE WIND

An uncomfortable silence spreads over the training class. The instructor tries to be conciliatory. "Of course there are things like cultural values and organizational pressures that affect safety. But how do you show them in a video? Let's face it, where's the humor in values? The systems stuff tends to be pretty dry and boring."

"So what's the answer?" asks a student.

The instructor's concern over losing his class turns to a smile. "Oh, there's lots of things we can do. We can self-talk, you know, coach ourselves. We can self-trigger better awareness. Think of Inspector Clouseau and Dudley Do-Right. Boy, did they need coaches or what? Who was observing and giving thoughtful feedback? Clouseau's supervisor was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Dudley's girlfriend Nell was always tied to the railroad tracks."

The instructor continued: "Here's another idea, I found it on the Internet somewhere. Animals are an image that helps people become less clumsy. I'm serious. Imagine yourself as an eagle or a cheetah. Feel yourself being that graceful and coordinated. Here's what a psychiatrist says: 'Feel the wind in your face as you run or soar through the air in perfect balance with yourself and with nature. Practice this imagery for five to ten minutes whenever your self-esteem is low because of an episode of clumsiness'."

A student raises her hand: "You know, I heard that Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan practiced visualization."

From the back of the room someone asks: "But how much time does management spend visualizing a safe plant?"

A BALANCING ACT

You can see from this fictional account how easy it is for safety training to slip into dimwitted images and simplistic solutions. And how tricky it is to call for personal responsibility while acknowledging the need for supervisor and executive leadership. It's a complicated balancing act that doesn't crop up in customer service or maintenance training. Which is why it's tempting to take the path of least resistance and simply pop in a funny or frightening video.

By the way, the neurology professor at Penn who estimated we're all prone to one or two cloddish moves a day, and the psychiatrist who recommended imagining yourself as a dashing cheetah, are real sources, not fictional characters.

And the student who talked about inheriting clumsiness could be on to something. Clumsiness is no joke for adult dyspraxics. Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder thought to be caused by immature neuron development in the brain. This causes messages transmitted in the brain to be scrambled. The result can be difficulty in following instructions, poor manual dexterity, a tendency to fall and bump into things, and poor coordination. Dyspraxia is estimated to affect ten percent of the population, two percent severely, with 80 percent of those affected being male. As with dyslexia, dyspraxia often goes undiagnosed. Physiotherapy and occupational therapy can improve motor skills and coordination, and mental exercises are used to reinforce certain neuropathways in the brain to improve organizational ability and behavior.

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