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START YOUR OWN SAFETY EPIDEMIC (Part 2)
Epidemics are sensitive to conditions and circumstances - what author Malcolm Gladwell calls "context" in his bestseller, "The Tipping Point" (Little, Brown and Co., 2000). By the same token, employees are exquisitely attuned to the reality of context. Or "culture," to use the buzzword in vogue with safety and health pros.
Culture gets a lot of study these days because safety and health pros are coming to see how significantly it influences the transmission and reception of their safety messages. It's not surprising, then, to hear consultant Dan Petersen recommend that the most important step a safety person can take is to "define reality. What's going on here?"
In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we show how tweaking your work environment in even small ways can pay safety dividends.
EXPERIMENTING WITH GOOD SAMARITANS
To define the reality of your workplace, first put aside any personal prejudices.
Beware of what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. What's that, you say? Well, when we try to understand why people do the things they do (a natural in safety), we have a tendency to put too much emphasis on fundamental character traits, or more precisely flaws, and not enough on the significance of time and place.
We blame the victim. "We train our employees, what more can we do?"
Pay attention to circumstances, for one thing.
This point was dramatically made by two Princeton University psychologists years ago in the so-called Good Samaritan experiment. A group of seminarians was asked to prepare a short talk on a biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way, each student encountered a man slumped in an alley, coughing and groaning. Who would stop and help?
Psychologist Scott Geller calls this "actively caring," and who should be more inclined to "actively care" than seminary students? Yet some students literally stepped over the victim on the way to give their talk. Others did stop.
In some cases, the experimenter looked at his watch before sending the students on their way and said, "Oh, you're running a few minutes late. Better get moving." Other students were told, "It will be a few minutes before they're ready for you, but you might as well head over."
Of the group that was rushed, only ten percent stopped to help. Of the group that had minutes to spare, 63 percent stopped.
Now apply this to your workplace. Who has minutes to spare in today's "competitive climate"? Rushing is routine. And so circumstance - pace and pressure - does a number on that old safety pledge to "be your brother's keeper."
Pay attention to detail. This is another key to defining the reality of your workplace. Look for small expressions of a disregard for safety. Signs of disrespect. You'll spot these minor infractions simply by walking around. Look for the little things, because big problems start small, as Gladwell points out.
Criminologists call this the Broken Windows theory. A single broken window, left unrepaired, sends a signal. No one cares. No one is in charge. So more windows are broken. Soon the sense that anything goes spreads from the building to the street. And so relatively minor problems like graffiti and aggressive panhandling become symbols of prevailing conditions, invitations to more serious crime. And the system of order collapses.
In a workplace, a piece of machinery left unguarded can have the same ripple effect. So can a blown light bulb that's not replaced in a stairwell, trash that's not picked up, PPE that's not worn. Workers get the message safety doesn't matter. No one cares. The invitation goes out: you have permission to do what you want.
WHAT TO DO
"The Tipping Point" emphasizes the power of small, symbolic acts. Fix the broken window. Erase the graffiti. Replace the light bulb. Clean the aisles. This was the strategy that eventually lowered the crime rate in New York City. Don't try to solve all your headaches at once. You can't.
Instead, target a small infraction - one that can be relatively easily corrected -to send a strong, unambiguous message about safety. This is what transit police in New York's subways did. They scrubbed graffiti off of rail cars and arrested fare-beaters. Did it religiously, in a very public way. And today, riding a subway in the Big Apple is a much different "reality" than in the 1980s.
You can do this in the workplace, but you can't do it alone. New York City's streets and subways never would have been cleaned up without a committed mayor (Rudy Guiliani in the 1990s) and police chief. Who wants to clean subway cars every night? Cops don't want waste time chasing down turnstile cheats. So management set precise goals and timetables. The signal was sent, and the troops got the message. That signal has to come from the top, as every safety and health pro knows.
One other key to creating the kind of social epidemic discussed in "The Tipping Point" also has to do with thinking small. Gladwell calls it the Magic Number of 150, based on research by a British anthropologist. Throughout history, it turns out, hunter-gatherer tribes, religious orders, even military planners have all settled on the number of 150 as the limit to how many people can be effectively managed as a group.
If the group gets any larger, the capacity for personal loyalties and direct face to face contacts is lost. When it comes to maintaining social relationships, we seem to max out at about 150. Beyond that number, we lose track of people, who they are, what they do, forget their names and how they relate to us.
Safety, as essentially a personal issue, is sensitive to the magic of intimacy. Says Dan Petersen: "Safety is about one-to-one interactions, supervisors to managers, supervisors to workers, managers to workers. Safety is about these interactions happening every day. It's about people caring for one another. That's how safety is achieved."
Most facilities employing safety and health specialists will have more than 150 people on site. But there are many ways to divide groups into smaller and smaller pieces. Safety initiatives can be organized by departments or shifts or teams. One way or another, you want to create a community small enough for genuine working relationships, loyalties, and conversations. It makes sense: epidemics spread more quickly through small populations.
The "The Tipping Point" presents three keys for creating and sustaining a safety epidemic in your workplace:
1) You need special types of people - catalysts, carriers, and influencers. Mavens, Connectors, and Salespeople.
2) Your message must be so compelling - in terms of how you package, present and market it - that it sticks.
3) Physical conditions and cultural values play a huge role in influencing how employees act. Find small "icons" that invite risk taking and lead to accidents in your workplace. Replace them with new symbols -repaired equipment, clean aisles, brighter lighting - that speak louder than lip service. These improvements represent pro-safety "programming" for employees, supervisors and managers.
These lessons aren't new in 2003. What the "The Tipping Point" offers safety and health pros is a fresh take on old problems. And its strategies work. Decades ago, in the 1970s, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied plants with superior safety records. The work sites shared these best practices, which come right from the pages of "The Tipping Point":
To tip an epidemic of safe behaviors and attitudes in your favor, you and your organization need to push all these levers.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at email@example.com, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
BEHAVIORAL SAFETY NOW CONFERENCEThe recent prevailing emphasis on behavior-based safety seems finally to have died out. And good riddance - that is, to the "band wagon" mindset about this approach that characterized the field during the past few years. Perhaps now we can get beyond the marketing and sales hype to simply look at what behavioral research has to tell us about how to minimize the risks of injury.
Learn how to start your program or move it to the next level at the Behavioral Safety Now Conference on October 14-16th in Reno, Nevada, where more than 40 current case studies will be presented. You are cordially invited to attend.
Please visit www.behavioralsafetynow.com or call (281) 593-1987 for more information.
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WE NEED YOU!Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?
Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.
Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.
If any of these topics interest you - or if you have other ideas - e-mail editor Dave Johnson at email@example.com
We will also consider articles you've already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.
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