Dear Subscriber,

The annoying way in which we're "processed into passivity" these days challenges anyone responsible for preventing injuries on the job. Apathy does not make for alertness.

But this numbing process has become routine, as services we depend on become more technological and systemized.

How did you feel the last time you went to an airport, stood in security lines, kept flashing your identification, waited out delays, and then squeezed into your cramped little seat?

Or the last time you visited your doctor's office and sighed when you saw every seat already taken in the waiting room?

Maybe you called your school about an issue with your child and ended up in a series of meetings with the teacher, the guidance counselor, the school psychologist, the vice principal and the principal.

Or you called to report a problem with your internet connection or insurance bill or medical claim or parking ticket. After 20 minutes on hold, you're transferred from one robo voice to the next. You speak slowly, punch the "pound" key a dozen times, finally are promised the next available live human, then disconnected.

Doesn't exactly make you feel like getting on the phone and trying again, does it?

Or schedule another meeting with the school?

Maybe you'll drive or take the train the next time you have a short trip.

Overloaded systems - everything today from telecommunications and transportation to education, healthcare and government - have a way of doing this. Lines, delays and lack of human contact wear you down. So you turn off and tune out. Processed into passivity.

"Why bother?" "Let's not go there." "Ah, forget about it" - attitudes not exactly conducive to positive safety cultures.


The effect of systems on human behavior was captured in the recent docudrama, "United 93." As the actors (big-name Hollywood stars were purposely left out) rehearsed their stunningly realistic recreation of the 91 minutes that the doomed 9/11 flight was airborne, they told director Paul Greengrass of an intense, collective feeling of being processed.

Greengrass elaborated on this feeling in the magazine,Film Comment: "You get up in the morning, you're a normal sentient citizen," he explained. "You walk into an airport and you're being processed. By the time we sit in our seats, we are subtly conditioned psychologically to do exactly what we're told... Supremely sophisticated systems, whether they're aviation or whatever... (require) a high degree of processed obedience from us."

The hijackers exploited this behavior. Outnumbered roughly ten to one, they took over an entire plane with meager weapons and a fake bomb because passengers had been "processed" into passivity.

We're particularly at risk of being stripped of our individuality and initiative when placed within tightly-controlled systems where a few individuals (doctors, pilots, school principals, plant managers and supervisors, for example) wield a high degree of authority. Take your seat. Buckle up. Do as you're told.

That's been a problem with "safety systems," for example. The idea is to comply. Obey OSHA. Conform to the rules. Is it any wonder many safety programs suffer for lack of initiative, and safety pros have a hard time getting workers involved?


It doesn't have to be this way, of course. "United 93" ends on anything but a passive note. Passengers overwhelm their captors and roar into the cockpit to take control as the plane hurtles toward a field in Pennsylvania.

But what does it take to turn processed passivity into resourceful, determined action when life and death doesn't hang in the immediate balance?


Leaders decide how systems will operate. Many leaders choose convenience and minimize contact with individuals - or safety issues. They prefer processing over participation.

But some leaders will conduct perception surveys, ask customers or employees about the quality of service, supervision, communication, working conditions, etc. They hold focus groups, get out of the office and walk around, ask questions and listen, rather than lecture. They turn people on, not off.

Safety is a good place to start if an organization and its leaders want to stop processing passivity. Safety strikes a basic human chord; it is a matter of life and death. Avoiding injury is a shared value almost everyone will agree to, and work toward if shown support and given the chance to do more than just follow OSHA rules.

Visit a workplace sold on safety, perhaps a VPP site, and the vitality and spirit is anything but processed. Certainly, systems are in place. But leaders make sure they produce ideas, pride and success stories, not blank stares. And employees seize the opportunity.