Has Safety Gone to the Dogs?

Written by Carl Potter, CSP, CMC

What do safety rules, work practices, and Pavlov’s dog have to do with you?

In the early 1900’s, Russian researcher Pavlov found that if you ring a bell then feed a dog, soon all you will have to do is ring the bell and the dog will start salivating.  (Remember the movie Turner and Hooch?)  Pavlov referred to this as a “conditioned response”.  His research has been stretched into the areas of human behavior.  People often refer to “Pavlov’s dog” when describing action that is automatic without any critical thinking.  It has come to my attention that sometimes safety rules are like the bell.  When a new rule is announced, employees and executives alike often respond with “Here we go again!”  This is a negative conditioned response.  Many situations exist where the reaction is familiar.

Let’s assume that you are a well-trained employee.  You have attended all safety training, paid attention, passed all written tests and signed the attendance roster.  Then it happens.  You go to the worksite and fail to use the safety procedures or you don’t wear your personal protective equipment and the result is a personal injury.  What happened?

Well to be honest, you didn’t follow the safety rules for one of three reasons:
1. You don’t know what to do
2. You don’t know how to do it, or
3. You don’t want to do it
(In this case, the third reason is the most likely.  What can be done?)

Pioneering psychologist William James had this to say: “The greatest discovery of our generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their state of mind.”  Although he lived several generations ago (1842-1910), his words ring true today.  Our attitudes, or “state of mind”, control our behaviors and reactions.

How do you react to a new rule?  Is your reaction, “They’re trying to dumb me down – I know how to work safe.” Or is it, “Hmm, I’ll take a look at the new rule and consider how this applies to my work.”  Both of these responses are conditioned by your environment.  Negative reactions become the norm when individuals and entire groups automatically react pessimistically to every rule or process change.  Yet by taking time to recognize and stop poor reactions and replace them with the willingness to at least consider the change, we can make our work safer.  Take seatbelts for instance.

Today most drivers wear seatbelts, but that wasn’t always the case.  Seatbelts were invented by pilot George Cayley in the late 1800s because he wanted to fly upside down.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that they became commonplace in aviation and were required in most motor vehicles in the 1960s.  Mandatory seatbelt use became law in the 1980s.  In the past 20 years educational commercials have changed the mindset of most drivers.  This has been reinforced by police officers, it has taken a while, but seatbelt usage has become the norm.

This is not to say that everything new is good, but it’s not all bad either.  And I recognize that some of us naturally resist change while others of us are less reluctant.  I think the question is this: how do we approach a worthwhile safety rule and apply it to our safe work practices so that it becomes our norm?

Most people don’t want to be told what to do.  In my work with organizations all over the country, I meet people who say, “But I don’t like that rule (or PPE).”  I ask them if there is another way to perform the work that is safer and they say, “Yes, but I don’t want to do it that way either!”  Can you see the problem?

When you don’t agree with a safety procedure or PPE, speak up!  Remember it’s not about winning a fight, but it’s about discussing and learning.  If you are willing to open your mind, you may find the procedure or PPE is a good one.  Conversely, you may find that the procedure or PPE is incorrect and needs modification.  Productive discussions can help close the gap between knowing and doing by helping everyone understand the rule and the resistance to it.

Here are a few questions to help you engage in a productive discussion about a new rule:
• What are the hazards being controlled with this new rule, procedure, or PPE?
• How does this rule, procedure, or PPE prevent injury?
• What is the basis for resistance tooth’s rule, procedure, or PPE?
• How does this rule, procedure, or PPE ensure that nobody gets hurt?
• How should we apply this rule, procedure, or PPE to our work?

You are responsible for safety.  The only person that can change your state of mind is you.  Always make sure that your motives are in the right place when discussing safety.  Then you will be more likely to keep safety top of mind so that you and your co-workers can go home to your families everyday without injury.

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Carl Potter is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) who presents his motivational safety message to audiences across the United States.  In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen safety books, is the founder of the Safety Institute, and is an Aircraft Commander and Safety Officer for the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.  Carl is considered an expert in training personnel in hazard recognition and control process.  To learn more about Carl Potter and how he might work with your organization to create a workplace where it is difficult to get hurt, visit: www.safetyinstitute.com.  Email him directly at: carl@safetyinstitute.com

View another great SPI blog post: Everyone Goes Home

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