Safety Leadership: Your brain in the ‘new normal’
Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA Organizational Safety and Reliability share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.
I ran with the bulls in Spain in 2014. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. When the bulls approach, it’s chaos. The Pamplona streets are narrow. Fear spreads quickly. People run erratically, cutting in and out. You’re taught that if you fall, you should curl up and not get up. If a bull sees movement, you could get gored. I can’t recall a time I’ve been more afraid.
How SIFs happen
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role fear has played in our lives during these past few months. We’ve all been im-pacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. When I speak to my clients, they’re working to manage both the practical nature of their response to the virus and the fear among their workers.
As many organizations begin to shift their focus from virus response toward returning to work, a blind spot is emerging.
If I think about that day in Spain with my safety hat on, I would say we had two “recordables.” The odd thing is that both happened immediately after the run, when we were back to some semblance of normal.
When the run is complete, you believe the potential for real injury has passed. You find yourself at the stadium. Af-ter a small pause, two “baby” bulls are released. These bulls are tiny compared with what you just saw. The difference is so great you’re desensitized to the exposure.
This is where my two friends got injured. One got head-butted by a 700-pound bull, propelling him into the air. The landing broke his finger. The other friend fractured a rib. These injuries happened in our blind spot, when we let our guard down. Now think about what we’re all dealing with during this pandemic. The blind spot I worry about is the organizational tendency to relax as we get back to some degree of normalcy.
Our brain is a weird organ. It’s prone to some very predictable hazards that could be easily magnified if we believe things are “back to normal.” Our brain’s engagement runs the real risk of being diminished based on the rules by which it operates.
We should be aware of these four brain-centered hazards as we get operations up and running again:
Fast-brain functioning. We all desire comfort. We want the familiar. By allowing our brain to “fall into the old rhythms,” we’re prone to error. Organizations that understand this realize that exposure still exists because people will revert back to old habits quickly. As a result, they empower their frontline workers to engage their slow brains to make safe decisions.
Memory. Many of us have been away from our workplace for quite a while. Relying on “what I remember” versus “what is safe and correct” can be a recipe for increased exposure. Organizations that understand this trap allow their people the time needed to apply best practices when they return. They revisit processes and procedures and focus on recognizing safe decision-making and execution more than pointing out production goals.
Divided attention. No matter how much we try to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 while at work, this virus will still cause “interference.” Workers will have loved ones affected. Family members will be fearful. Workers will have health concerns. Employers who understand divided attention take efforts to engage their workers in the specifics of the ex-posures they face. The supervisor’s role as a focusing agent, leveraging field-based safety discussions, centering em-ployees on their tasks and helping to remove the mental clutter, can be invaluable.
Stress and urgency. Everybody, from management to the line worker, is going to want to contribute as much as possible, as soon as they can. What workers need from management is the emphasis on safe and reliable operations. Employers who really understand the impact of stress have leaders who “walk the talk” with safety and are on the front lines, impacting both their direct reports and local management.
Everybody has a role to play as we all get back up to speed. We need to remain vigilant to keep reassessing the ex-posures all around us, whether they’re the “big bulls” or the hidden ones that lurk in our blind spots.
This article represents the views of the authors and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Josh Mrozowsky, vice president at DEKRA (dekra.us/osr), is a performance-oriented leader with expertise in developing new business ideas, identifying opportunities and implementing action plans that produce measurable results for his clients. (dekra.us).
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