“Be your own best safety manager!”

Ah, the holy grail — every man and woman a safety supervisor, aware, alert and taking charge of their own well-being. Safety nirvana. The ultimate promise of awareness and behavior change programs. What could be better? Like OSHA inspectors, there will never be enough safety managers on the payroll to watch over everyone. And who can argue against self-reliance? Responsibility for safety starts at home.

Especially now. Downsizing and eliminating a generation of middle management supervisors makes the strategy of “empowering” employees all the more urgent. In 2004, 55 percent of ISHN readers are assigning more safety tasks to line employees, according to our most recent White Paper survey.

Shifting the emphasis from external management of safety (decrees from the safety department) to individual self-management is occurring for other reasons, too. The workforce is more mobile today. More employees are on their own, working without supervision. OSHA Voluntary Protection Program work sites and various management systems strive to “operationalize” safety. That means taking audits, incident investigations, training and other tasks out of the safety office and into the hands of the rank and file. It’s got to happen if you want to integrate safety activity into daily routines and build a culture of safety consciousness. To expect your “safety man” to do it all is so 1970s, though more than a few compliance-driven work sites still operate that way.

Promises, promises

But expecting employees to do it all on their own is another illusion. It’s like those racks of self-help books at Borders that promise to show you how to lose weight, stop worrying, avoid toxic people, think positively — “how to hit all your business, personal and financial targets with absolute certainty,” as one declares. Sign me up. But read the small print first: All that’s required is the steady application of self-initiative, self-control, self-awareness, self-discipline, self-reliance, self-mastery, and self-regulation.

Drat! Foiled by the fine print again.

Naturally, self-help manuals — and self-help safety training programs that teach you to “be your own best safety manager” — can’t dwell on the difficulties of self-discipline and expect to increase their market share.

No, the language of self-help is assuredly user-friendly. You can reprogram yourself! Give yourself mental pep talks. Keep yourself on track. Trigger your own awareness. Be alert. Analyze your daily behavior. Discipline creates brilliance! You can achieve success in anything!

Dramatically cut your workplace injuries in weeks!

Time out

With safety activity becoming decentralized, less command and control driven and more about employee “ownership,” let’s take five — and remember that in the rush to delegate, to sell empowerment, we gloss over the time-consuming, mentally fatiguing, frustrating work involved in sustaining self-awareness and self-control.

A basketball player steps to the foul line. He remembers his coach telling him, “Bend your knees. Keep your legs close together. Take a breath. Visualize a swish. Just like in practice.” He knows it’s all good advice, but sinking two buckets with all eyes in the gym on you isn’t so simple. Just like the golfer teeing it up on the first hole with friends, strangers and caddies watching and waiting. Why is he having trouble recalling all that good backyard instruction?

Here’s one explanation: The stress of an intentional effort to alter one’s habit or attitude can deplete the energy it takes for self-control at the exact moment self-control is what is needed, write Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in a research paper, “Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources.” Self-regulation — another way of saying, “be your own best safety manager.”

Ask almost anyone who has tried to stick to a plan to lose weight or start exercising or change some long-time habit — they’ll tell you about moments of “depletion.” We’re forcing our brains to go along the neural path less traveled when we learn new habits, says Daniel Goleman in his book, “Primal Leadership.” It takes energy, a lot of mental muscle power, to hack out a new trail.

When resources run dry

Sure enough there are times we can’t muster that energy, draw on that willpower. Maybe it’s the workload or work pace that is too taxing. Or maybe the old inner resources are sapped by lack of sleep, or emotional distractions on the home front. What happens? The weary brain defaults to the path of least resistance — the well-worn trail of doing the job the old way, the unsafe way.

Intellectual appreciation of what is right to do only goes so far, psychologists tell us. “But we train them all the time,” you hear the manager complain. “And still they get hurt. What more can we do?!”

Read the fine print. “The procedural knowledge required to intentionally guide your actions when face to face with potent stressors and temptations cannot be acquired by reading alone,” states a posting on the Web site for Psychological Assessment, Research and Treatment Service.

In other words, don’t expect employees to become their own best safety manager without support. If all you plan to do is show a video, hand out guide books, and send employees on their way to self-management and self-regulation, reserve your classroom for repeating the same training program next year. “Don’t be beguiled by the magic of transformation,” write Gillian Butler, Ph.D., and Tony Hope, MD., in their book, “Managing Your Mind.” You need structure. A plan. Sustained persistence.

It’s a long-term collective effort that produces a workplace where everyone is their own best safety manager. Start with management leadership to set up the structure and insist on accountability for reaching goals. Include teamwork and brainstorming to develop the step-by-step plan. And supervisors and coworkers must be sold on “what’s in it for me” to the point where they encourage, praise, correct, listen and coach each other. That’s where the energy, the muscle, comes from to sustain the discipline and commitment needed to blaze those new safety trails.

— Dave Johnson, Editor