Universal safety skills (part 1)

June 1, 2006
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Have you found yourself knocking against a safety performance ceiling — you can’t see it but still feel blocked from rising higher?

You’ve cut injuries quite a bit, but people continue to be injured and costs are still being incurred? How can you move above the performance plateau?

Personal injuries — usually categorized as strains and sprains/soft tissue injuries, slips/trips/falls, finger/hand/wrist/arm and knee injuries — often remain the last bastion of frustration. These injuries are often related to factors that are more difficult to mandate or engineer out. They are affected by the characteristics and skills (or lack thereof) of workers. To make significant safety gains, you must develop, support and apply tangible safety skills that workers at all levels can incorporate and use in their daily lives to prevent costly personal injuries.

Two sets of skills — mental and physical — affect organizational staff worldwide. In reality, “mental” skills involve the physical body to some degree, and “physical” skills have some mental components. Part 1 of this article will focus on the first four mental skill sets. Part 2 — to be featured in ISHN’s July issue — will cover the last three mental skills, as well as six physical skill sets.

1) Recognizing level of accepted risk

Sometimes people don’t see hazards that might be obvious to others. And at other times, people come to accept certain risks as required to do a job. My colleague, Ron Bowles, calls the informal standard for tolerance of risk in a specific workplace their “Level of Accepted Risk.” Both organizations and individuals have levels of accepted risk tolerances of which they are usually not conscious. The higher the level of accepted risk, the more exposure to hazards there will be. This, in turn, increases the chances of having more accidents.

In terms of personal injuries, many do not perceive the risks from slow, ongoing tension/trauma buildup. Some, for example, expect that “work wears you down.” Or others believe it is “normal” to experience lower back pain upon awakening.

The key to working as safely as possible is to become aware of these risks, determine their level of likelihood as well as potential repercussions, and act in ways that minimize these risks while still allowing us to perform the chosen task.

Remember that low accident frequency does not equal low accident probability. When work becomes routine, and there hasn’t been a discovered injury for some time, it’s easy for people to become complacent and raise their level of accepted risk. As their threshold increases, so does the likelihood of acute or cumulative injury.

Identifying level of accepted risk is a continuous process of awareness and decision-making. Skills to acquire include:
  • Improve recognition of changing and “hidden” risks;
  • Acknowledge poorly reasoned acceptance of risk (“I ain’t been bit yet.”);
  • Apply training to “do something differently” to manage personal safety;
  • Help others do the same.


2) Forward and cumulative thinking

It’s important for all staff to develop “Forward Thinking” skills. This is akin to rehearsing a fire drill. Questions to ask include:
  • What could go wrong from operating the way I’ve been doing, even with no external changes?
  • What environmental factors might unexpectedly intervene — other people getting closer, mechanical devices, vehicles, etc.?
  • What could then go wrong?
  • If such-and-such happens, how should I react?
A forward-thinking driver might ask, “If that car in the lane next to me, which appears to be swerving slightly, suddenly moved into my lane, what would I do? Where would I go?” This leads to moving away from the potential threat (suspect car) by either slowing down or speeding up, or preparing/programming yourself to move quickly into the safest space, should the anticipated scenario occur.

Additionally, all staff should begin to think cumulatively. Many people assume that the last thing that happened “caused” a result. For example, I slipped because the ground was slick. I hurt my back because the load was too heavy. It’s helpful to sensitize all staff that, for example, hearing loss occurs gradually over time, rarely overnight. And that many strains and sprains are a straw that broke the camel’s back phenomenon. The first and one hundredth straw that is piled on has as much weight and contribution to the injury as does the one placed just before the camel collapses.

3) Round-the-clock perspective

“Leave your work at work and your home at home.” Sounds good, but for most people, this is unrealistic. We can’t take off and leave our working muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves at the end of the business day; similarly, what happens at home affects us at work.

Emotional issues in the family often cloud perception of risk at work. What we do physically on the weekend can have a great impact on levels of injury or tension buildup in the body on Monday. Personal habits, such as smoking, alcohol use and sleep deprivation — a significant and often hidden problem for many adults — can adversely affect alertness and judgment, which can strongly affect personal safety.

Because many sprains and strains are cumulative in nature, it’s important to change workers’ behaviors at home as well as at work. People are predominantly creatures of habit and won’t lift one way at work and another at home, so it’s important to develop safe, default behaviors they can use everywhere. Organizational leaders should implement structured initiatives to reach people at home and at work, and help everyone develop “24/7/365” thinking.

4) Attention control

There are numerous attention-injury connections. Lack of attention control can result in:
  • Vehicle injuries — Multitasking while driving is involved in at least 50 percent of all car accidents, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Struck by/struck against injuries — Not “seeing” moving or stationary objects can result in unexpected impacts and injury.
  • Strains & sprains — Soft tissue injuries can result when a worker misjudges what they can safely lift in their current physical condition, which can change throughout the day. Strains and sprains can also result when workers fail to recognize tension buildup and make necessary adjustments.
  • Slips, trips & falls — Workers can fail to: see or select the safest and clearest path while crossing an obstacle-strewn floor, adjust their balance when crossing slippery or uneven terrain, or recognize sudden changes in terrain or floor surfaces.
  • Caught in or caught under — Attention control helps people better gauge distances between objects, speeds at which things approach one another (cars, forklifts, people), and possible pinch points.
  • Hand injuries — One slip of attention can result in a serious injury such as a fracture, laceration, amputation or a dislocation. Many people are one-side dominant to the extent they are unaware of where both their hands are in relation to a machine or tool.
  • Accident repeaters — Workers classified as “accident repeaters” often have poorly developed skills for focusing and controlling their own attention.


The ability to direct attention can be taught. Attention control is a pattern of habits that can be triggered by changes in the person or environment. While everyone has default attention control habit patterns, the ability to control attention can be significantly improved with effective skills training and practice.

Training in attention control should include:
  • Visual, auditory and kinesthetic skills focus;
  • Identifying default personal attention patterns;
  • Improving attention control habits;
  • Switching background-foreground, wide-narrow, internal-external;
  • Regaining focus after distractions or fatigue;
  • Sustaining attention during repetitive tasks;
  • Selecting/concentrating on a task without blocking out cues of potential danger;
  • Applying attention control skills at work, at home and in favorite activities.


High-level safety is about learning and improvement. Set expectations for gradual and cumulative progress. You might not see demonstrative progress every day, but — when you look back — positive change can occur rapidly.

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