Mouthing Off About Safety

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By Phil La Duke

There’s a lot of talk about safety.  Safety talks, reflections on safety, safety reviews, safety observations, LinkedIn discussions, forums, blogs and…well the list goes on and on.  There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of talk about safety, but does talking about safety change anything?

In 2011, Harold D. Stolovitch published the book, Telling Aint Training a book that I confess to having not read—no judgment here, I read voraciously but just haven’t gotten around to reading this particular book. Why mention a book I haven’t read? Simple: the title intrigues me (apparently not enough to shell out $17.50 for the book, or even enough to drive the approximately one mile to the public library and at least ask about checking out a copy, but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ve known for years that people, at least adults, don’t learn from having things told to them, rather the deepest learning comes from drawing from their own experiences and adapting things they have learned from experience and applying these skills to new circumstances and situations. So what good are safety talks where we find a 6956th way to say “be careful” in broad and ambiguous terms.

Adults need to draw from their own experiences and want to learn things according to their own timetable and in a style that they prefer. In 1956, a team led by Benjamin Bloom, created “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning”.  Bloom, et el, postulated that there were three “learning domains”:

  1. Cognitive: mental skills (Knowledge)
  2. Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (Attitude or self)
  3. Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (Skills)

Blooms taxonomy

According to Bloom, and several generations of researchers since, adults learn by building higher-level skills by building on the things they have learned at lower levels.  Too often in safety we ignore a wealth of research and knowledge of how people learn and pursue behavior modification techniques instead.

So what are we hoping to accomplish through these safety pleasantries? Awareness? What adult isn’t aware of the connection between unsafe behavior and injuries? So why do we devote so much of our safety messages to the lowest domain (knowledge)? Do we really believe, for example, that workers are injured in slip and fall accidents don’t know the connection between trip hazards and falls? Or that by removing those hazards likely to cause a worker to trip they can significantly lower the risk of a slip, trip, and fall injury?

Take the well known but growing problem of texting while driving (or walking for that matter).  The dangers of texting while moving are well known by just about everyone, and yet, a significant number of people continue to engage in this reckless activity; why?  Texting provides immediate gratification—we get an endorphin rush from receiving text and you have to send them to get them. Diverting our attention away from a routine and fairly boring task like driving to a task we find of interest (whether it be texting, changing a radio station, or composing an opera in our head) seems like a rational thing to do, given the presumption that our attention will only be diverted for a microsecond.  Except the facts as I have stated them aren’t exactly accurate.  Texting doesn’t just take a microsecond, in fact, it takes enough time to create a real traffic hazard; but people already know this.

The problem is that texting (as with most safety issues) isn’t rooted in a lack of knowledge or skills; people know very well that it’s a dangerous activity but choose to do it otherwise.  People perceive the risk as no big deal.  Similarly, the problem isn’t psychomotor—the danger isn’t rooted in a driver’s lack of manual dexterity; it’s not dangerous because the driver lacks typing skills.  The danger of texting while driving is that while drivers know that the behavior is unsafe, they simply don’t care. No amount of safety talks will change the fact that most unsafe behaviors begin with poor choices, and these poor choices are rooted in an undesirable attitude about safety.  This undesirable attitude toward safety lies at the heart of the so-called safety culture.

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Changing an attitude is more difficult than it seems.  For starters, you can’t change an attitude by telling someone that they have a bad attitude and need to change…or else. Attitudinal change comes from within, and as answer to the old joke says, “only one, but it has to want to be changed?” It keeps coming back to the Edgar Schein model for change, where dissatisfaction + vision + next steps must be greater than the resistance to change. I’ve written enough about that already so I won’t waste any more precious space on it here.  Sufficed to say, if someone believes that his or her current state is serving them well they have no incentive to change; and before anyone goes out and starts buying gift cards and throwing pizza parties that’s not the kind of incentive I’m talking about.  People need a strong, WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?).  If an adult doesn’t believe there is sufficient WIIFM, or that the supposed WIIFM isn’t worth the effort they will continue to resist the change.  Change is personal, and as a Organizational Change practitioner for many years, I have learned at great pains that unless you understand that change will only happen when enough individuals feel that the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing.

Shame And Blame Doesn’t Change Anything

Some people try to shame and blame people into changing, and it doesn’t work.  Whether it be children’s safety poster contests (which if you’ve read much of my work, you know I hate…what kind of sociopath introduces the possibility that a parent might die at work to a seven or eight year old?) or “It happened to me videos” or out and out, “you monster, don’t you care about safety…” lectures, these ham-fisted external attempts to force change don’t work.  People start to dislike you for blaming and trying to manipulate them and you become less effective as a safety professional, so perhaps I should say, nothing positive changes.

Building the Inner Driver for Change

Ultimately the way to change is a) get people to want to change, b) give them tools to change and c) support and encourage their efforts to change.

I could write another 1,000 words on building the case for change, but I’m not going to, at least not today.  Besides, if I told you everything I know, who would hire me to consult with them?

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