Here we take concepts from the best-seller, “The Tipping Point,”(published in 2000) to show how you can deliberately start and control a positive emotional epidemic — centered on safe attitudes and behaviors.

Thanks go to Marv Broman, the director of corporate safety and health for Valmont Industries, Inc., Valley, Neb. Marv stopped by ISHN’s booth at the American Society of Safety Engineers national meeting earlier this year (2003) and recommended reading, “The Tipping Point.” We did, and we get your point, Marv.


We’ve seen a wave of violence in the workplace this summer:

… A 25-year-old worker on probation at Modine Manufacturing Corp. in Missouri brings a .40-caliber handgun to work on July 2, kills three people and injures five before taking his own life.

… Six days later, a 48-year-old Lockheed Martin employee storms out of a sensitivity training class, grabs a shotgun and semiautomatic from his pickup and goes on a rampage, killing five employees and wounding nine before fatally shooting himself in the chest.

… A man walks into his Century 21 real estate office in San Antonio on July 23 and shoots three women, killing two and critically wounding the third; hours later he kills himself on the side of an interstate.

… In Delaware on August 9, a 42-year-old man shoots a former supervisor through the window of her home, injuring her, then knocks on the door of his former boss’s house and fatally blasts him in the neck with a shotgun in front of the man’s 15-year-old daughter. The murderer commits suicide on a golf course.

… And just this week, an employee at an Ohio auto parts factory kills a payroll clerk, apparently over disputed vacation time, and wounds two other co-workers before killing himself.

This is not rational behavior, of course. But is it contagious? Are we seeing unconscious imitations of publicized incidents?

Contagious behavior It wouldn’t be the first time. In the national bestseller, “The Tipping Point,” (Little, Brown and Co., 2000) author Malcolm Gladwell cites studies showing how suicide cases that received wide publicity had the effect of increasing, or tipping, the rate of suicides nationwide. Marilyn Monroe’s death temporarily spiked the national rate by 12 percent.

School shootings are another example. Gladwell points out that in the 22 months following the Columbine High massacre in April, 1999, 19 incidents of school violence occurred across the U.S., with ten fortunately foiled before anyone was hurt. But each unfolded along the lines of the Columbine script.

Celebrity suicides, shootings at work, shootings at school — each provide detailed “problem-solving” instructions to certain people caught in certain circumstances, according to Gladwell. The script gives them permission to engage in deviant acts, responding to personal demons.

And then we’re hit with a wave of contagious behavior. An emotional epidemic.

Like a virus The “safety bug” can spread through your workplace like a virus. But so can risk taking or apathy.

Which way it goes — the direction it tips — depends on three factors familiar to anyone working in safety: 1) People, the “agents of infection”; 2) the message being carried; and 3) the work environment that, in effect, feeds the virus.

Let’s study each of these “tipping” factors.

Who are the carriers? We’ll start with the simple premise that some people matter more than others. This is the venerable 80-20 rule: 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. To spread an epidemic, the work is done by three personality types described by Gladwell as Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople.

Who fits these descriptions in your workplace?

Connectors are gregarious extroverts who roam the halls and have a knack for chatting it up with secretaries, mechanics, shop stewards, VPs, the FedEx guy. They know everyone by name. And they wield power, social power.

Mavens are the experts, teachers in the workplace. They don’t possess the raw transmission power of Connectors. Their influence comes from collecting and brokering information that no one else possesses.

Mavens are masters at verbal communication. Salespeople have the power to persuade largely through non-verbal means — call it charisma, energy, presence. They embody Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description: “What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say.”

To transmit a safety message, to build a safety culture, you need all three of these personalities working on your behalf.

Safety and health pros naturally slip into the role of Maven. Mavens are “pathologically helpful” with no personal agendas, according to Gladwell. Of course that limits their power in the organization.

Safety and health pros might also be Connectors. After all, their work takes them from the boiler room to the board room, into every corner of the workplace. Still, to generate real transmission power they need the help of other Connectors.

You don’t usually find Salespeople toiling away in EHS departments. What motivates most Salespeople — money and status for instance — are not the customary rewards for safety and health work. But you have to connect to Salespeople to get your message sold. Just as technical safety and health consultants will partner with marketing specialists to grow the business.

Target your interventions Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople are your carriers. Agents of infection. Models who give both “thumbs up” for safety. The few who have the power to give permission to the many. Safety is OK, it’s the thing to do.

Lesson number one from “The Tipping Point”: Target your interventions, your resources, at these three groups.

Don’t try to win over every single employee at once. Start small. Identify and cultivate your Mavens, Connectors, and Salespeople. Then turn them loose in the workplace.

This is grass roots safety as opposed to top-down command-and-control. It’s the difference between parents and peers when it comes to influencing behaviors and attitudes. Who has more clout? In her book, “The Nurture Assumption,” Judith Harris agitated parents everywhere by citing numerous studies that concluded people model their friends more than authority figures.

The late consultant Dan Petersen put it this way: “Tap the intelligence of the employee. If they are not a part of what you’re doing, you’re missing out.”

Make it stick What is the message you want Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople to buy into and spread? Most important, how are you going to make that message stick?

Stickiness is a problem in safety. Posters, pep rallies, banners, slogans and motivational speakers don’t leave lasting impressions. The message presentation might sizzle, but like fireworks it fizzles out, and employees aren’t buying.

“The medium is the message,” said the prophet of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan. What was he talking about? When content becomes a commodity, how it’s sold, how it’s delivered, becomes crucial. Go to your nearest Starbucks to see this principle at work. Listen to the music, check out the lighting, note the colors and settle in one of those comfy chairs while downing another cup of joe.

Pay attention to packaging and presentation — this is the second lesson from “The Tipping Point.” The second key to spreading your safety message like a virus through the workplace.

After all, safety mandates and instructions are hardly irresistable. To the contrary, they breed resistance. Still, many safety and health pros are blinded by the “rightness” of their message and neglect the power of packaging and presentation.

Many of the ideas promoted in “The Tipping Point” for making your message stick will have a familiar ring:

1 - Tell stories. Stories about close calls or an injured worker’s insights are far more compelling than regulatory text and accident statistics.

2 - Be practical and personal. Teach employees how to incorporate safety into the jobs they do.

3 - Better yet, let them figure it out. No one knows the job better.

4 - If they need help, use other employees as teachers, mentors, coaches.

5 - Don’t overwhelm employees with too many learning objectives. Keep it simple.

6 - Test your messages. Hold focus groups. Do they “get it”? Are they “buying”? Why or why not?

And don’t insult your audience. Smokers are not smokers out of ignorance, Gladwell writes in “The Tipping Point.” They know the risks; they’ve been warned for years. The same is true in the workplace. No one knows what’s going on at work better than the line employee, said Dan Petersen.

Covering the basics of hazard recognition is a given. Beyond that, to reduce risk-taking focus on the social rules and rituals of your workplace that make taking risks acceptable. As risk consultant Peter Sandman points out, some of the most common reasons for ignoring safety instructions have nothing to do with awareness:

“My friends will laugh at me.”

“I know I should but it’s a pain.”

“Management is sending a double message.”

Small tweaks — big dividends for safety Epidemics are sensitive to conditions and circumstances — what author Gladwell calls “context” in “The Tipping Point.” 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 that Petersen recommended the most important step a safety person can take is to “define reality. What’s going on here?”

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.

The difference?

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.”

The "Broken windows" theory 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 you can 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.

Let’s get small 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. Said 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.

Fresh thinking The “The Tipping Point” presents three keys for creating and sustaining a safety epidemic in your workplace:

You need special types of people — catalysts, carriers, and influencers. Mavens, Connectors, and Salespeople.

Your message must be so compelling — in terms of how you package, present and market it — that it sticks.

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”:

1 - Management was engaged and set the standard. “I’ve seen what happens to people with poor safety records,” said one plant manager.

2 - Employees felt important, needed and wanted. There was a strong sense of community, belonging and loyalty.

3 - Lead workers were used to train coworkers. Workers were involved in program planning, implementation, and especially hazard identification.

4 - Frequent positive contacts occurred on the shop floor. Managers and workers often were on a first-name basis. Safety managers saw plant managers daily. Good work was recognized immediately; poor work was immediately corrected.

5 - A strong emphasis on housekeeping was clearly evident, with cleanliness and orderliness much better than average. Plant environmental qualities in general — including lighting levels, noise levels, exposure levels, etc. — were also above average.

To tip an epidemic of safe behaviors and attitudes in your favor, you and your organization need to push all these levers.