Kathleen Batty, the Safety Chick, was stalked for years, first as a college student, by a former high school acquaintance. Her nightmare ended with his arrest after he kidnapped her and held off police in an 11-hour siege. Since then, she has trained with a former Navy SEAL, learned self-defense techniques, and launched herself on the seminar circuit as the Safety Chick. Her mission: push women past the dork side of personal safety. Many of you face that challenge with your employees.
The Safety Chick penned a book, “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do: The Ultimate Guide to Living Safe and Smart.” The essence of living safe and smart? Intuition, she says.
On thin ice “Oh no, you’re not going to write about intuition, are you?” moaned an email correspondent. “They’re going to string you up by your toes.”
Intuition is a dicey topic to bring up to safety and health pros. With its touchy-feeling, mystical connotations, some critical-thinking, empirical-minded pros dismiss it out of hand.
“Intuition doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with safety,” says Bob Veazie, a one-time safety coach and current operations manager for Hewlett-Packard.
“Even suggesting to a young safety pro that there is anything like intuition in loss control is totally inappropriate,” seconds Carl Metzgar, a veteran safety consultant. “It sounds like astrology or Feng Shui.” In other words, New Age psychobabble.
Others are a bit more open-minded. “I think there’s something to intuition,” says Earl Blair, a safety professor at Indiana University. “At times I’ve depended on intuition in my personal life, but I’ve never used it in my career in safety.”
“Every profession has people with great intuition,” says safety consultant Chip Dawson. “It’s much like common sense. It comes from training and experience.”
Intuition gets knocked for the flighty, other-worldly air about it. Definitions like this (from a consultant with the Intuition Institute) don’t help: “The intuitive manager comes into conscious harmony with transcendent energy systems, and is the recipient of a down flow of energy and images of possibility.”
Right. Try springing that on a seen-it-all audience of left-brained safety pros at your next conference. It might be you who gets strung up.
Let’s put aside energy fields and rings of consciousness. There are more practical aspects to intuition. It’s not flying by the seat of your pants, picking up vibes, guessing accurately, or down flows of energy. That Safety Chick says intuition is simply acknowledging what you already know inside. It’s harnessing learned expertise, says David Meyers, professor of psychology at Hope College.
Intuition is learned, says another psych professor, Scott Geller, of Virginia Tech. “We learn how to read people, situations, emotions. And some people are more attentive to the signals, more tuned in.”
Learning to pay attention Matt Forck sensed those signals as a journeyman utility repairman called out in a Missouri windstorm one October day in 1997. Performing switching operations at an electrical substation to restore lighting to nearby towns, he found that one switch was missing its handle. “It just felt wrong, why didn’t this switch have a handle,” he recalls. In the rain and wind, he finally found it, inserted it into the slot, and stopped just before cranking the switch. “Something just felt wrong,” he says.
Words from veteran safety pro Jeff Meddin come to mind: “If you strongly believe something is wrong, it usually is.”
Something was wrong. As Matt yanked the switch handle he suddenly realized he was closing it. It had already been in the open position. In the wind and rain and searching for the handle, he forgot to check the position of the switch. Trying to act quickly, he yanked the switch back open.
“Have you ever unplugged a toaster when it’s toasting?” Matt asks. “You can’t miss the spark at the outlet when the electrical load is dropped. Well, I dropped the equivalent of millions of toasters. A huge electrical flash instantly appeared, and it roared for a full 60 seconds until the relay protection on the line could extinguish the arch.”
Luckily, Matt wasn’t burned to a crisp. He could’ve burned the entire substation to the ground, costing his company millions, his job, maybe his life. “That night I learned to pay much better attention to my intuition,” he says.
Moments of truth Everyone will have moments like Matt’s, when their intuition is tested. This goes for both safety pros and their employees. Something doesn’t feel right, look right. Should I, or shouldn’t I, pull that switch?
We all have a reliable intuitive ability to sense danger, says Gavin De Becker, author of “The Gift of Fear.” It comes from knowing what to look for. There’s nothing mysterious about it.
We’re talking about a combination of skills: knowing â€” based on training and education; and looking â€” alertness, attentiveness, mindfulness. In intuitive moments, we connect clues or cues, signals from our surroundings, to our storehouse of knowledge. That connection happens so rapidly, in a flash like a surge of electrical current, we’re at a loss to explain how the intuitive thought popped into our head, or the feeling seized our gut. Having just completed his apprenticeship, Matt had that stored knowledge of what to do, what not to do. But the whipping wind and rain made him less perceptive. He failed to check the position of the switch. Experience told him he was in danger of doing something wrong. But hurried, anxious and distracted, he missed the signal. This is not about channeling energy flows. Just by living â€” and through training â€” we all acquire intuitive knowledge and expertise, says David Myers in his book, “Intuition”. He calls it a “repository of experience” that allows us to automatically, intelligently, know what to do.
But in the heat of the moment, like Matt, we often don’t make the connection. We fail to recognize what we already know. Especially in emergencies, or the daily rush to get product out the door. We’re too busy racing, planning, worrying, and scheduling. You can’t tap your intuition if you’re preoccupied, says the Safety Chick.
Or if you’re afraid and running on adrenaline, like when there’s an explosion, or fire breaks out, or the lights go out, or a buddy collapses in a manhole.
That’s the moment when you’re caught by surprise, off guard. The moment you pull the wrong switch, rush into the confined space, slip off the roof. Emotions, especially fear, mask what we intuitively know.
Slow down and sense the signals, says the Safety Chick. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t deny the risks that you might face.
Cruise control Of course that’s easier said than done. For many reasons, we will ignore what we already know, what we’ve been trained to do in safety classes.
Consider driver’s ed as a safety class. When we first learn the skill of driving, we’re anxious. We lack confidence. So we’re ultra-attentive. Then, through repetition and practice we over-learn. Soon enough, we gain confidence to the point we put driving on auto-pilot. Brake for a red light, step on the gas when the light turns, without thinking about it.
Many times we go through the motions at work or at home without thinking. Driving. Eating. Taking shortcuts. Familiarity breeds complacency. Psychologist Myers calls it “cognitive conceit.” Scott Geller calls it unconscious competence. Which veers into risky unconscious incompetence when we do something like punch numbers on that cell phone while steering the wheel and eating a Big Mac.
There are other reasons, besides being too busy, or operating on cruise control, why safety pros, employees, all of us, don’t heed that voice of experience. Here are a few outlined by David Meyers in his book, “Intuition”:
Illusory optimism â€” The classic “it-won’t-happen-to-me” misguided belief. It’s self-defense, really. We believe ourselves less vulnerable than others to misfortune. So we keep smoking. We shun seat belts. We get up in the morning and put on our rose-colored glasses. We don’t see things as they are (including workplace hazards and unsafe behaviors), we see things as we are, through our rosy filter.
We have this tendency to be self-serving in our beliefs. As you know, managers often blame workers for an accident. Employees will turn around and blame an accident on poor instructions, long hours, downsizing, management’s pressure. We all wear Teflon.
Hindsight bias â€” After the forklift tips over, we’ll say, “Yeah, I knew that load was too heavy. I’ll do better the next time.”
Cognitive egotism â€” Many of us, research shows, see ourselves as being better than most, more intelligent, better looking. Fighter pilots deal with the crash and death of a squad member by rationalizing, “But I’m better than that. I wouldn’t make that mistake.” The flip side Here’s the rest of the story: experience and intuition can let us down. Those gut feelings, hunches, and vibes we sense can save us â€” or kill us. “Intuition can be a poor servant,” says Myers.
How? We fool ourselves. We get cocky. “It won’t happen to me.” So we enter a tank without a permit. Skip lockout procedures “just this once”.
We invest too much in our vaunted experience, with embarrassing results. Two dozen veteran book publishers rejected Dr. Seuss. “You ought to go back to driving a truck,” a supposedly savvy concert promoter told one Elvis Aaron Presley in 1954. Closer to home: “I’ve got a hunch this guy can lead my safety committee” â€” ignoring the fact he hasn’t made a meeting in two years. Misjudging risks We can also let our fears hijack our thinking. Some threats we deflate, others we inflate. Myers says we misjudge risks due because:
- We’re biologically equipped to fear dangers faced by our ancestors ages ago â€” snakes, spiders, heights and tight spaces.
- We’re afraid of what we can’t control. So we’re more scared to fly in a plane than drive a car, though the odds favor us getting hurt on the road. We fear pollution more than the risks of our jobs because, hey, we’ve done that job for years.
- We fear what can happen today, not in 20 years. So we keep smoking. Don’t worry about hearing loss, or the cumulative effects of repetitive motion.
- Some dangers seem more real because of a personal experience, close encounter or vivid memory. We see a plane crash on TV and we refuse to fly. A friend is assaulted in a subway, so we only take cabs.
Yes, intuition can get us into trouble. When we let personal prejudices and emotions override objective predictors. When we’re over-confident and under-prepared.
Balancing act When it comes to our own safety, we need to put intuition in its place. We can’t ignore it (“if you feel something is not right, it’s probably not”). But it’s not infallible, either. Here’s what we can do to get the most out of intuition:
1 - Build up your storehouse of safety and health knowledge. Some of it comes through education and training. Some through lessons learned on the job. Ask questions. Listen closely. Keep an open mind.
“You can observe a lot by watching” â€” Yogi Berra.
2 - Don’t jump to conclusions, especially if you’re new to the job.
An expert’s knowledge is organized for quick access, says psychologist Myers. Experts make meaningful connections and see the bigger picture based on interviews, observations and past experience. This is how they can quickly size up the quality of management commitment to safety or supervisory involvement after but a brief audit. Novices, though, gather up information here and there like pieces of a puzzle that they can’t yet put together.
3 - Stay awake. Pay attention. Know your surroundings. Know where the exits and fire extinguishers are. Know where that open skylight is. Know what to look for.
4 - As the Safety Chick says, don’t kid yourself about risks. Don’t live in denial that you’re safe when you’re not.
5 - By all means use objective data â€” accident reports, injury records, claims histories â€” to stay in touch with real outcomes, trends, and probabilities. That’s why many executives use metrics and benchmarks to quantify what their gut may or may not be telling them.
Intuition can particularly help those who have to “read” people and situations for a living â€” therapists, negotiators, teachers, diplomats, personnel administrators, police, judges and sales reps. Safety and health pros play all these roles at some time or another. But remember, intuition is not a stand-alone tool. Your goal is integration. Marry the critical, analytical thinking of the left-side of the brain with the reflexive, emotional right side.
There’s no reason to be one-sided about safety and health. As a sign in Albert Einstein’s office said: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”