Author: Justin C. Johnston, MS, MBA
Attitudes drive a culture of safety
At Big Pine Consultants LLC, we try really hard to promote a “culture of safety” whereby safety is the #1 priority in everything we do. We start meetings with a safety minute. We talk about near misses so we can all learn from narrowly avoided mishaps. We complete a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) for every field task. We seek input from our clients on their safety policies and procedures to find ways to improve our own. We make sure our staff all have their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) required by our policies. There is a lot that we do, but there are somethings that are dangerous that are often not written down or discussed.
This week, temperatures skyrocketed across much of Europe and the USA. It’s all over the news, so naturally heat exhaustion is the topic of choice for many safety minutes before our meetings. We all know that working in the heat can be dangerous and this safety minute topic is not new. Many of us know it by heart. The precautions all seem like common sense. During a recent conference call that I was participating in, heat was the topic and the presenter went through the standard items:
- Stay hydrated;
- Take breaks to cool down and hydrate often;
- If dizzy or not feeling well, stop work and get to a cool environment. Use cooling pads if needed to cool down quickly; and
- watch each other for signs of heat related illness.
These are all good standard talking points. The presenter basically was repeating the items in their health and safety policy. It is all stuff that has been repeated over and over again. These are all well-known precautions to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke. However, what is not described above was the sleepiness in the voice of the person delivering this list of precautions. They were experiencing a DANGEROUS ATTITUDE when it comes to driving a culture of safety. Note that the attitude problem is purely human nature. The presenter was trying to do their job well and express the need for safety. This person was experienced in what they do and in all of their years, they had not yet seen a person collapse from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Perhaps as a result of never seeing the issue firsthand, it is difficult to place much emphasis on the delivery and make it sound very important. It was business as usual stuff and they had become COMPLACENT and found it hard to be truly engaged in the presentation.
This week, in the archaeology world, a young archaeologist was just getting started on her career when she reportedly died from heat stroke. It was her first day on the job participating in a dig in the Kisatchie National Forest (
NPSO: Archeologist dies in Kisatchie National Forest | WHNT.com). The heat index was 107°F. She worked for a reputable consulting firm that I will assume has similar policies and procedures regarding heat as most of us are familiar with and trained to implement. There were probably many factors at play, as there often are when there is a death. She may have had an underlying health condition. She may have wanted to prove herself by working hard in sweltering heat (another dangerous attitude called “machoism”). It was her first day on the job so she was probably not acclimatized to working in those conditions, which is something that is a known risk factor. “Workers new to outdoor jobs are generally most at risk for heat-related illnesses. For example, Cal/OSHA investigated 25 incidents of heat-related illness in 2005. In almost half of the cases, the worker involved was on their first day of work and in 80% of the cases the worker involved had only been on the job for four or fewer days.” (Using the Heat Index: A Guide for Employers (nalc.org)). Whatever the combination, the policies and procedures failed to save her life.
I imagine myself being the person in the field that day in charge of the tailgate safety meeting. I imagine that discussion when we talk about the hot working conditions, what to watch out for, to stop and take breaks, to stay well hydrated. Was my attitude during that meeting expressing the importance of taking that information in? Did I explain the policy in a way that the importance sunk in? Or was I speaking with an attitude of complacency, repeating what I have repeated a hundred times before? I am sure many of the people at her company are asking themselves if they could have done more. It is hard to say. Hindsight is 20/20 and I don’t want to presume anything. I can’t imagine what all of her co-workers and family members are going through at the moment. I am making a lot of assumptions about the incident above that I have no knowledge about in order to make a point. Thinking about this scenario gave me pause to consider whether this could have happened at Big Pine Consultants LLC.
Based on my consideration, I concluded that it could if I let a complacent attitude intrude on our efforts to build a culture of safety. It is incredibly challenging to keep a complacent attitude from intruding on a company culture of safety. It requires real and deliberate effort to recognize a complacent attitude and even more effort to overcome it. Some tips to do so include:
- Have “overcoming a complacent attitude” be one of the many safety minutes so people recognize complacency when they see it. Other dangerous attitudes like Machoism, Invulnerability, Resignation, Anti-Authority, and Impulsivity could also be discussed as safety minutes.
- Empower your staff with “stop work authority” for all. If anyone sees an unsafe condition, they should have the authority to stop work immediately until the condition is resolved. A safety minute topic regarding everyone having stop-work authority may be used as a tool to combat an Anti-Authority attitude as well.
- Make sure your mission statement involves a commitment to safety that is clear, memorable, and supported by staff. It is important that it is supported and encouraged by all staff. It is difficult to force staff to take actions they don’t want to take on their own.
- Make sure policies describe, and staff KNOW, who is accountable for aspects of safety. All staff need to take ownership of their part in achieving a safe work environment. Some way of periodically testing staff knowledge may help reinforce ownership, such as asking staff questions pertaining to a particular safety policy as part of safety minutes in meetings instead of it being a one-way presentation of a safety topic.
- Start your safety minutes from a perspective of “why”. Many of our safety policies begin by explaining who is responsible, what they are responsible for, and how to be responsible. They neglect to describe “why” a particular policy is important. Many people feel the “why” is implied or common sense, but stating it can elicit an emotional response that connects with staff on a level that the policy alone will not. For instance, instead of a safety minute like “With these high temperatures, workers should take x, y, and z precautions”, consider starting with describing that you want everyone to get home to their loved ones at the end of the day happy, healthy, and enjoying life. Heat stroke can and does effect people of all ages. No one is immune and heat stroke strikes fast. Everyone is responsible for making sure we all do our part to get home at the end of the day and enjoy time with family and friends. Watch out for each other! It’s going to be hot today so make sure your friends and co-workers are all doing the following: x, y, and z procedures.
As always, and like many of you out there, I am looking for ways to improve the culture of safety at my company. Do you have any tips to improve safety and avoid complacency or other dangerous attitudes? Let me know!