Workplace safety and innovation are not often linked together. Think of the safety meetings you have attended (or led) over the years. They tend to follow a common formula and are not highly engaging. Many folks walk out of the safety meeting the same as when they came in, only 30 minutes older.

When I ask people at a work location to give me an estimate of the percentage of those meetings that were “highly effective,” the answers range from a low of 5% to a high of about 75%, with the average being considerably less than 50%.

How can you make these meetings more attention-getting and deeply engaging?

Don’t play the game the same old way

Safety initiatives also tend to be formulaic. Over a period of time (often a very short period of time) they run their course and fade into the background… often to be replaced with the next “new program,” and so on. This does not support a robust and sustainable Positive Safety Culture.

Many examples exist of disjunctive change in various industries, Through the 1960s, U.S. automakers all pretty much played the same manufacturing, sales, and marketing game the same way. Then along came Toyota, Honda, et al., and fundamentally shifted the game toward total quality (combined with low price and modern styling). The Japanese products captured huge market share by developing an innovative approach to their industry, which, after a period of dazed denial, their U.S. counterparts gradually adopted.

Another example: Competitive high-jumpers always went over the bar belly-down. Then Dick Fosbury tried jumping “backwards” and going over belly-up/back-down. He immediately added approximately one foot to his best jump! His innovative maneuver became known as the “Fosbury Flop”. Now pretty much every high jumper executes the “Fosbury Flop.”

Behavioral science comes to safety

Applying the techniques of behavioral science has been one of the best safety innovations. The result has been increasingly “evidence-based” safety practice. Many safety pros recognize that most accidents have human factors prominently in the causal chain, and that a “traditional” safety focus mainly or only on environmental conditions per se, without also emphasizing behavior (as well as person factors such as training), is inadequate and severely limited in its effectiveness.

We live in a time of great innovation in information technology. Yet I see some folks in the EHS field still operating in a paper-and-pencil mode. I see many EHS folks focusing internally on the familiar, and not attending much to innovations being developed and applied by others. Benchmark safety best practices with other organizations, and spend a few hours with the “lovable gearheads” in your own IT group. You could open up new possibilities for tracking, data management, and communication strategies to support your safety efforts.

Human nature at play

What is novel and innovative definitely gets our attention. We are built to attend to stimuli that change. Take an everyday example. We walk into a place that has a distinctive odor — a seafood market, a coffee shop, a paint store — and we notice the strong smell. After a short time, we don’t notice the odor so much anymore. If we walk out of the store (where the air may now smell remarkably fresh), wait a few minutes, then walk back in, we notice the strong odor all over again. Our nose “pays most attention” to change, differences, novelty. So do our other senses, and all the central nervous system apparatus that organizes and interprets incoming sensory data, and decides what to do with that raw input — attend or ignore.

So, a well thought out novel safety effort will likely get attention, at least for a while. The innovative safety meeting format, the new structure for pre-shift safety huddles, the focus on error-control, the application of computerized safety data management systems, may all activate safety-mindfulness, but everything we know about human attention suggests that the unchanging stimulus soon loses its impact. The paradigm shift becomes… the familiar paradigm.

Vary your approach

Behavioral science can be helpful here as well. The most essential point is that, since unchanging stimuli lose their impact and fade into the background, even with an excellent innovation, we can never “set it and forget it.”

We can adapt some of the attention-getting techniques widely used in advertising. Safety pros do have to “market their message.” Such simple low- to no-cost techniques as changing signage from time to time can refresh attention; in safety meetings, rotating leadership, breaking into smaller groups for case-study discussion, having vendors come in and talk about the safe use of their equipments, etc., can continually reintroduce novelty into the process, and activate mindfulness.

The Positive Safety Culture is flexible, adaptable, and opportunistic. Scan your internal and external environment looking for new and better ideas. Work to sustain those ideas by keeping them fresh and visible. That is the essence of innovation.