Safety Leadership: The worker’s role in managing and controlling safety
Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.
In the world of managing safety, much of the messaging is about convincing leaders to do the right thing – model the right behavior, avoid sending mixed messages about safety and productivity, and create a culture of safety. Leaders can do all of that, but are still left with this reality: They’re not the ones making the decisions to work safely.
Leaders, rightfully, spend a lot of time working on external factors to empower employees to make the safe call. (For example, making sure that the worker is well rested, there’s no pressure from customer demand, and everyone has the ideal tools and equipment handy.) Even when the work environment is as close to perfect as possible, employers ultimately rely on workers to make decisions that protect their safety and that of others. To help ensure those decisions are the right ones, employers also need to address the internal factors that affect decision-making.
Think about all the decisions workers must make throughout the day. Then, think about how reliable they must be to make the decision that will be safest for them, their co-workers, the facility, the environment and the public. Making the right decision every time would be ideal, but it isn’t always possible simply because of how the brain operates. In fact, most of our actions aren’t decision-based. They’re simply habits that worked for us yesterday to get the job done.
For example, why would an experienced assembly-line worker, who has successfully run the same machine for years, deviate from standard practice? Why do we see a hazard only after someone has been injured – when, in hindsight, it had been there the whole time?
To get answers to these questions, our industry must lean more on neuroscience. Our brain is up against many hazards that can distort decision-making. For example:
- Many decisions are made automatically, without conscious thought.
- We think we see everything in view, but we don’t.
- We believe we can multitask, but when we try, we make more errors.
- We believe we have accurate recall; however, our memory isn’t absolute.
- Our brains reward us for trying to fit in.
- When we’re cognitively fatigued, our brains have much more influence in pushing us to take the easy path.
So, what techniques can workers internalize to make sure their actions aren’t influenced by the brain hazards we just described?
Safe decisions can be fostered by seeing exposures that most people miss. If employees learn and practice certain seeing techniques, they’ll notice more exposures. Then, once an exposure is recognized, team members can learn skills to reduce it, including work pauses, questioning and deeper analysis.
Workers can understand what prevents them from checking or verifying their work to make sure they get the safest outcome. Better execution and enhanced precision both result when these issues are identified and addressed.
It’s also important to make sure decisions about keeping safe from overexertion are occurring across teams. To accomplish this, workers require skills on how to assess and reduce the load on their bodies, as well as techniques to increase their safe capacity.
Finally, examining how teams interact from a safety perspective is key. Each worker can be educated on – and practice – communication techniques known to fend off critical errors while keeping the team safe and operations in control. Groupthink should be avoided. The safest teams communicate both what they’re doing and what they’re about to do.
To be sure, leadership plays a key role in creating a safe workplace and helping employees incorporate these techniques. Improving formal leadership has merit. But safe decision-making is an outcome of the interaction between leadership and frontline employees. If safe decisions are to be made more reliably, a balance between both parties must be struck.
By creating a learning environment that encourages knowledge seeking, skill building and collaboration, leaders embolden workers to make decisions that incorporate safety into every part of their jobs. And that’s good for everybody.
This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Jack Balsamo is vice president of DEKRA (dekra.us) and an executive consulting leader. He helps deliver culture-change services through the development of strategic metrics, culture assessment, and leadership coaching that drives positive behavior change and results.
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