By Phil La Duke
It’s starts early in our lives: “Don’t be a baby”, “Stop crying, you’re all right”. It continues through our childhood, “Toughen up, you pansy” or “walk it off”. Even when we’re adults were told to “man up” or “play through the pain”. At a very basic level we are conditioned to see injuries as weakness, as some sign of inferiority. Heck even the dumbest predators target the weak and the injured among their prey. And yet organizations expect us to ignore a lifetime of conditioning and openly admit our mistakes, injuries, skills deficiencies, and weaknesses. We reward and revere the strong, the burly, the toughest among us. They are the carry over from the warrior class, knights, samurai, and warlords. For centuries a person’s power came largely from their physical brawn and his or her ability to withstand physical punishment and survive. This is the world in which we are trying to find ways to get people to report injuries.
What makes matters worse are the many “blame the worker” programs that reward those fortunate enough to avoid injuries and punish those who are less fortunate (the withholding of a reward is a de facto punishment, after all). Talk to any safety professional about why his or her injury rates are rising and you are likely to quickly get into discussions about poor case management and fraudulent injuries. Even safety professionals aren’t immune for showing disdain for the slowest gazelles in their particular herd. We—everyone in the organization—are better than these ten-thumbed dolts who trip over themselves, do stupid things, and violate policy. Most of us are disgusted by these clumsy oafs for spoiling our safety records; they deserve to get hurt. Oh sure, none of us will say it out loud—our world is far to politically correct for that —but deep down, most of us believe that somehow we would not have shared the fate of the injured worker.
One’s ability to silently suffer injuries without making too much fuss about it is celebrated by society, scars are badges of honor, and the more harrowing the injury the greater the status bestowed on the injured. Remember the scene in Jaws where captain Quint and Hooper are swapping stories about their injuries? Both trying to one up the other, with broad smiles of nostalgia for their injuries; contentedly remembering not the pain of the injury, but the stalwart way in which they endured it. Not once did they mention their own culpability in the injury (how their injuries were caused seemed insignificant) rather they reveled in the heroic way they took it with out complaint.
Attempts to provide some sort of bonus for zero-injury workdays reinforce this conditioning. If you can take the pain long enough to get treated by your own physician you not only grow in the estimation of your peers but you’re more the hero because you saved the safety BINGO, or the bonus, or the pizza party.
Deconditioning a lifetime where we have been taught that the measure of a man is his ability to take more punishment than his peers isn’t easy. In fact, reconditioning the workforce to believe that they have a responsibility for reporting injuries so that it can save others (who might not be as tough) can be damned hard. So what can be done? Plenty:
- Institute an aggressive problem solving training program. Problem solving that focuses on areas where the system could fail and result in injuries reduces hazards without threatening the idea that tough as nails, hard-scrabble men are somehow expected to become simpering school girls. Problem solving allows workers to keep their pride and puts a positive spin on injury prevention. It’s not about how tough someone is, it’s about how smart a person is, and how good he/she is at solving problems on the job.
- Reinforce training with structured conditioning. Think it terms of sports, or military training. It’s not enough to teach the person what they need to do know to accomplish a task, but the person needs to compete the task over and over until the task is hardwired into the person’s brain. The task needs to become part of the person’s muscle memory. The conditioning will happen with or without your guidance, but unguided conditioning is more likely to hardwire poor practices than it is to produce a safer workplace.
- Focus on hazard elimination and not on injury prevention. People are far more likely to tell you about something that COULD hurt people than about something that DID hurt people. Focusing on identifying, containing, and correcting hazards is more about process and less about the soft side of safety.
- Make it clear that injury prevention is about saving money. It stark terms the company doesn’t give one whit about how tough a worker is, how much a worker doesn’t need to use a lift assist, or how much punishment a worker can take. Companies care about money; and unsafe work conditions and practices subject the company to unjustifiable financial risk. A worker may be able to slap a Band-Aid on a cut worthy of stitches, but the company doesn’t empower that worker to risk infection or some other complication that is likely to cost the company money.
- Reinforce the desired mindset continually. The mindset that it’s laudable to get hurt, that it’s somehow a badge of honor or a right of passage can’t be changed by assailing it head on. Instead, safety professionals need to position reporting injuries for what it is: an important part of managing risk and doing business more effectively. After all, a more efficient workplace means job security.
Our conditioning to suffer in silence, to stoically toil at our jobs and say nothing in complaint is deeply ingrained into our collective psyche, and mere training or behavior modification isn’t likely to move the dial (figuratively speaking). But if we approach things a bit differently we can make real strides in changing the way workers think about safety.
We need to recondition the workforce so that workers can do their jobs without harming themselves. This will require not only physical conditioning, but mental, and behavioral conditioning as well.