Speaker Spotlight

Speaker Spotlight: To improve your safety culture, you have to use your brain

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year, the National Safety Council Congress & Expo features some of the top thought-leaders and motivators in the occupational safety and health community. Safety+Health has invited the most highly rated presenters to contribute to this monthly column. For more on this year’s event, visit congress.nsc.org.

“I don’t get it – our company is committed to safety. We do all the training and we are in 100 percent compliance. I know the employees understand, because they score 100 percent on the tests. We even have extra stuff like lunches and prizes, and they still go out and get hurt.”

Sound familiar?

This has been a common refrain from safety managers for decades. Attaining the highest safety results is a challenge. Unfortunately, many miss the key ingredient for success: biology. That’s right, biology.

The conventional approach to and teaching style for occupational safety are the reasons for meager results. The common approach focuses on compliance, policies, procedures, rules, regulations, discipline and consequences. These fail to appeal to the part of the human brain that controls behavior.

A cross-section of the brain shows two major parts: the neocortex and the limbic system. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thoughts and language. When we educate our employees, they can completely comprehend the materials and score 100 percent on the test; however, they fail to retain or put it to use. The problem is that the neocortex doesn’t drive behavior.

Our limbic brain is responsible for our emotions and feelings, such as trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for behavior and decision-making, and has no capacity for language. In most cases, the appeal for this part of the brain is simply left out of the safety approach. That’s why employees can score high on the tests, remember policies and procedures, and even understand that they could get seriously hurt – but still make poor and unsafe decisions.

How do you appeal to the limbic brain? You must make the topic relevant and it must have a personal appeal or reward to the employee. Employees must get a direct benefit from the material so they’re motivated to change behaviors and habits – not for the company, but for themselves.

Find a way to tap into what’s most important to your employees and offer a benefit that appeals to them personally. Keep in mind, this is not a sign on the fence showing how many days without an incident, nor is it a thermos or some other gift workers receive if they hit a milestone. It must be in line with their values and beliefs.

Do you want proof of this theory? Consider cigarette smokers. Cigarette smokers don’t quit smoking because a health warning is on the packaging. In fact, they started smoking with that label on the pack and understand the adverse health effects. Smokers most often quit smoking when the habit begins to impede or affect others in their life. The things that hit home on a personal level are what spark the change.

Most employers want to protect their employees, and make a serious effort to do so – the problem is their approach. They just need to know what to do and how to do it. The good news is that it’s not that difficult. In fact, it’s fairly simple.

When companies address safety with an appeal to the employees’ limbic brain, the desired results will follow. Workers who feel respected by their employer are more engaged, have higher morale and watch out for each another. It’s proven that the safest companies deliver the highest quality and have healthy bottom lines.

A new definition of success is the place to start. “Everyone gets home to their kitchen table and families every day ... and we get the work done.” This message must be genuine in intention and pervasive throughout the entire enterprise. Leadership must ensure every layer of the organization lives this mantra, especially front-line supervisors. A dedicated approach over a sustained period is required to earn employee belief that their safety is the top company value. Lack of sustainability of this or any new initiative is the No. 1 reason good ideas fail. Plan and commit for the long haul, and your goals will be attainable.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Dale Lesinski, QSSP, SEE, is vice president of DiVal Safety. He has more than 30 years of experience in the safety industry, is a member of the American Society of Safety Professionals and is on the NSC Exhibitor Advisory Board. For more information on improving your culture, visit divalsafety.com.


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