Have you heard of Chris Langan?

Today he lives on a horse ranch in Northern Missouri. As an adult Chris has worked mostly labor-intensive jobs such as construction worker, cowboy, farmhand, and firefighter. He also worked as a bouncer in Long Island NY. Chris’ story is not all that different from thousands of other men, yet with Chris, there is one difference.

Chris Langan is the smartest man in America.

Compare Chris to another “smart man,” Albert Einstein. Einstein, of course, has become a common name for “smarts.” He published more than 300 scientific papers and nearly 150 non-scientific papers. He earned a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Langan, well…Langan doesn’t hold any degrees, has not earned a Nobel Prize, and has not lectured throughout the world. If you are thinking that this isn’t a fair comparison, you are right. Albert Einstein’s IQ was 150 while Langan’s IQ is 190 — so Langan is 20 percent smarter than Einstein! But chances are you have never heard of Chris Langan…why?

IQ isn’t the end-all

Malcolm Gladwell in his outstanding book “Outliers, The Story of Success” suggests that to be successful on the level of an Albert Einstein you need two things. The first is you need to be “smart enough.” After this initial cut of a high IQ, it takes something more, something termed “practical intelligence.”

Gladwell quotes psychologist Robert Sternberg, “Practical intelligence includes things like knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.” He continues, “It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want.” Some researchers have termed this “social intelligence.” And the best thing to understand about this concept of social intelligence is that it is teachable!

So, what does this have to do with safety?

Everything! Some organizations spend enormous resources working on our safety IQ, and they should. Safety IQ includes a keen understanding and knowledge of the safety rules, safe work practices, proper standards and operating procedures. And organizations spend considerable time studying and thinking about culture, and the effects of culture on safety results. But we generally don’t dedicate time or resources to teaching and exploring “hazard intelligence” — the ability to read a job site, hazard or changing situation correctly and perform our work injury and incident-free.

Teachable skills

Four key hazard intelligences, which are teachable skills, might just add up to safety success and cultural change; let’s take a look:

Safety awareness — In 1995, I began an apprenticeship in distribution line work. The training program was intense and comprehensive. It was a good combination of hands-on learning with text book modules. We had to test proficiency on a number of key tasks like chain saw use, grounding of overhead lines and termination of underground cables.

What we didn’t learn in the hundreds of modules was safety awareness. After all, is it OK to understand how to properly operate a chain saw, if I can’t identify other site hazards that could cause a significant injury? Safety awareness is one of the cornerstones of hazard intelligence. How well do you teach and evaluate this key skill?

Job planning — A few years ago, as an area safety professional, I was called to a job site after an electrical contact. The worker who touched the 12,740-volt line was very lucky; he was at the hospital but would make a full recovery. In speaking to his other two crew members, I learned what had happened. The crew had energized a section of line, then took a break for lunch. During lunch, the lineworker who made contact took a phone call from his cell phone.

Immediately after lunch, he went up in the bucket, completely forgetting the line was energized just thirty minutes earlier. The phone call was about his daughter, who was having a hard time. So, the injured worker’s mind was not on his work. And, the crew completely failed to plan. For the most part, we teach our crews to review a job before it starts, and that’s it. Jobs change and work progresses. Job planning is a hazard intelligence that needs to be taught, job planning at the beginning of the job and throughout the day.

3) Peer-to-peer feedback — This year I coached my son’s 9- and 10-year old baseball team. It was a good group of players and parents, but one of the biggest challenges we had was getting the players to talk to each other. Everyone who has played baseball, softball, or any sport really, understands the importance of talking to each other; communicating. In baseball we call that ‘chatter.’ On our baseball team, you could hear crickets chirping…and many job sites and work floors are the exact same way.

In May 2010 Businessweek published an article called “The Peer Principle.” This article reported research comparing organizations with good safety records to those with excellent safety records.

One key finding: “The differences between good companies and the best become stark when you examine how likely it is that a peer will deal with a concern.” Peer-to-peer feedback, or “chatter” as I like to say, is a significant key to safety success. It is also a hazard intelligence that must be taught.

4) Remaining uncomfortable — Do you remember when you started driving? Or better yet, do you have a child who you are teaching to drive? We start out driving under the speed limit. Both hands are firmly pressed on the wheel. The radio is turned off, and the cell phone is safely tucked in the backpack in the backseat. We are uncomfortable and driving demands our maximum attention!

Fast forward two years. The same driver has a big gulp soda in one hand and the cell phone in the other. Driving faster than the speed limit with the radio blasting, their legs are controlling the steering wheel — there is no fear.

One of the best practices to teach your organization is to stay just a little uncomfortable — staying well within safety rules and safe work practices clearly understanding the consequences of not doing so. There are a number of ways to do this, through active participation in incident analysis, near miss reports, job observations, employee sharing, etc. The key is that organizations have the hazard intelligence to remain comfortably uncomfortable…and safe.

In the end, IQ matters. Teach and train on safety rules and safe work practices — nothing can replace a high safety IQ. But we need to consider what makes safety even more effective; what can help take your organization to the next level.  Just as social intelligence is a clear indicator of life success, a keen sense of hazard intelligence may just be the ticket to safety success as well. Learn, and teach well!