What’s the most important thing in safety? Is it reducing costs of injuries? No, that’s the wrong focus. Is it people conforming to a set of rules? Is it about the altruistic notion of ‘saving lives’ as previously mentioned? What’s the real purpose of safety?
A lot of people talk about it and it seems easy, yet there is a world of work and much time to be invested in achieving the magical safety culture; it just isn’t that easy to make safety work. One of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of safety is E. Scott Geller. He teamed up with a renowned convert to safety, burns victim Charlie Morecraft, to produce “Docker meets Doctor,” and discuss the keys of actually making safety “more than a priority.”
Safety is about empowerment. It’s about ensuring we all take responsibility for safety, every single one of us; by fixing things as they crop up—by taking the individual responsibility and ownership for the problem. This is difficult, as it requires effort and motivation, particularly in the absence of a reward for the responsible behaviour. When we can do things without reward, we are well on the way to having resilient attitudes and ownership for safety.
It’s about more people with a “what can I do to make a difference?” mindset. The higher number of people that say this, the higher likelihood there is of a critical mass “birthing” a safety culture change based on the actively caring model. Geller is astounded when management “only get excited about safety when someone gets hurt.” On top of this, safety is spoken too often in negative terms. This is not good psychology—people are much more attuned to shooting for success than avoiding failure. Geller says we need “success-seeking” attitudes to succeed in safety management.
Behavioural safety has somewhat metamorphosed over the past few years from pure focus on people’s behaviour, to a slightly gentler and truer approach of “people-based” safety. It includes a combined approach of person-based safety and behaviour-based safety. It is more holistic and representative of the reality of the working dynamic, and particularly of the people within it.
Morecraft has a different, though no less effective, approach when compared with Geller. His story shakes everyone; a person who lost basically everything to a horrific injury; job, livelihood, health, and family… the list goes on. He says “There’s no rocket science about safety—it’s all about families!” Geller follows him with a scary story of his own, the discovery of everyday cancer that shocked him into a fresh “reality.” He relates that “we are more scared of getting cancer than we are of having an occupational accident.” He said the irony of it was the social support he got from having cancer—this sort of support is almost unheard of when someone suffers a serious injury at work.
Morecraft travels around the world preaching the safety message, talking to casualties of serious burn injuries. This gets him down because of the plain truth; the casualty is not going to be alright—there lives change forever for the worse. He is sick of being “in hell” with these people, but he knows the reality is they need him, and they need hope. The frustrating thing is how can he give them hope when in reality there is little there?
If there’s a face to a safety problem, there is likely to be an emotional response and this helps. The reason for the emotional response to September 11 in their view was simply that there was a “face” to the tragedy. Why is it that there isn’t more outrage over the 40,000 that die on US roads each year, or the countless thousands who suicide? They feel that is simply because there’s no face to the road toll and no face to the silent person in utter torment, who simply can’t exist for a single moment longer, ending it all.
We have to get back to the ‘people element’ if safety is going to be held higher than simply a priority that can be “re-prioritised.” Safety must become a value; as values don’t change. There is no rocket science to safety, just some basic and solid principles around using the emotions and creating efficacy (the “I can do this / it will work” attitude) within the minds of those who’re most affected—workers. Managers and senior executives are keys to this change.
Safety is not rocket science—it’s simply about people. The real purpose of safety is empowering people to make change. They want to be safe—their lives and livelihoods and families depend on it!
© Steve J. Wickham, 2008. All rights reserved Worldwide.
Acknowledgement to Dr. E. Scott Geller and Charlie Morecraft and their vision for the safety of people all around the world.