Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mental Health Awareness Month and Safety

Let’s say there was a hazard in the workplace that, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics was responsible for more workplace fatalities than electrical exposures, oxygen deficiency, and fires combined – would you want to do something about it? Unfortunately, you probably don’t, because this thing that is suicides, which were responsible for 249 workplace fatal injuries in 2012. Compare that to other hazards that we tend to focus on:

Exposure to electricity – 156
Falls on same level – 120
Fires – 34
Explosions – 88
Struck by falling object – 241
Excavation cave ins – 15
Exposure to temperature extremes – 41

This is not to say that we should not focus on these risks, but it’s just to point out that for a profession that is focused on saving lives we are completely ignoring a significant risk that is killing our workers, not to mention the hundreds of thousands that suffer in silence from various mental illnesses, which have untold costs in terms of lost production and even contribution to other incidents.

May is Mental Health Awareness month in the United States, and we at SCM believe it’s time that safety professionals take seriously the effect mental health has on safety. Some more statistics to consider:
  • Since 1992, BLS reports a decrease of 29% in the total number of occupational fatal injuries in the United States. In that same period, the number of suicides in the workplace have increased by 21%.
  • Suicides currently represent 5.6% of the total number of occupational fatal injuries, meaning that one out of every 18 fatal injuries in the United States is a suicide. This is an increase from 1992 where suicides only accounted for about one out of every 30 occupational fatal injuries.
  • Outside of the workplace, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US (38,285 people committed suicide in 2011) and kills more people every day than car accidents 34,675 people died in car accidents in 2011).

Despite these facts, most safety professionals do not have suicide prevention or mental health policies. The reasons for this typically stem from the belief that this is a subject for Human Resources or even from the stigmas regarding mental illness. Most safety professionals feel ill-equipped to deal with such a complex issue as suicide. But this is not an excuse to do nothing and just hope that others will do what’s necessary. Mental health is a serious workplace safety issue and burying your head in the sand will not change that.

Some ideas that will get you started on a suicide prevention/mental health policy in your workplace:
  • Start the conversation in your workplace about mental illness through workshops and/or training classes that discuss the prevalence of mental illness and how to identify the signs and symptoms. Work to erase the stigma regarding mental illness.
  • Create a suicide prevention/mental health policy in your workplace that makes it clear that your organization is committed to preventing employee suicidality and fostering mental health as far as feasible.
  • Ensure that anyone who is struggling with mental illness in your organization has a clear and reasonably easy avenue to get help. This can be through an Employee Assistance Program, through your organization’s health insurance policy, and/or ensuring that employees have access to a local suicide prevention hotline.
  • Supervisors and managers must be trained in the signs and symptoms of mental illness and suicidality and how to handle these cases, including respecting employee privacy and how to direct those who need help to the right sources.


For more information here’s a link to the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention site on workplace suicide prevention (http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/task-force/workplace/cspp).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Safety Leadership and Safety Management: Two Conflicting Approaches?

There’s a lot of talk in the safety profession about being a “safety leader” or even the more impressive sounding “transformational safety leader.” If you look at any safety journal, any conference, any discussion board, you’ll see numerous references to safety leadership, whether it’s what makes someone a leader, the importance of leadership, and plenty examples of poor leadership.

But what is “leadership”? As you can imagine, and similar to so many other things in life, the definition of leadership is unclear and often disputed. Is it as simple as “getting others to do what you want”? We don’t think so. A definition of leadership that we like comes from Chemers who describes leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” There are a lot of things we like about this definition, but the most important is that it highlights an important point – leaders cause people to do things that those people already want to do. Leaders inspire action toward a “common task,” which means that those leaders do not create new motivation. Rather they inspire people to act on already existing motivation and use that motivation to create excellence.

It’s easy to see how this would affect safety performance. A safety leader inspires people to work toward the common goal of safety. Instead of dragging people, kicking and screaming, to act safely, the safety leader taps into the instinctual safety motivation all humans have and uses that as a resource to drive safety performance. Safety leadership recognizes people as the source of safety and success in the organization, and it’s the leaders job to tap into that motivation, point the people in the right direction, and then get out of the way.

That sounds great, but the problem we run into in the safety profession is that the tools we often use, safety management, are many times at odds with the concept of safety leadership. Safety management is typically based on the ideas of structure, command, and control. Many of the interventions in safety management are based on the idea that people are unreliable and poorly motivated to be safe. Therefore, safety management calls on us to create specific procedures for the jobs our employees do and punish them when they violate those procedures. The underlying idea here is that our employees are not smart enough to figure out the right way to do the job safely themselves. Or, we implement behavior-based interventions that attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of our employees, implying that our employees don’t care enough about safety already and if we can only get them to care more then our problems would be solved (see our previous blog for more on that topic).


You see, the problem here is that safety leadership and safety management sometimes send two different messages. Safety leadership says, “your goals are good and are the same as mine, so lets tap into those and all work together to achieve our goals as a group,” whereas safety management says, “we need to protect you from you, in spite of you.” We tell our employees that safety is everyone’s responsibility and they all have a place at the table, and then implement policies that take away their voice and inhibit organizational learning. And then we are surprised when our organizations lack trust. Perhaps it’s time to take the emphasis off of our employees as the problems in our organizations (because that’s just not true most of the time) and put the emphasis on our own actions and the messages they are sending to our employees. Maybe then we can take steps toward building an environment of trust and learning in our organizations, which may be the first step toward effective safety leadership.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Attitudes, Behavior, and The Problem With “Hearts and Minds” Strategies

On its face, it makes intuitive sense – change people’s attitudes and you can change their behavior. This is the theoretical underpinning of those “hearts and minds” strategies that we hear about a lot. The idea is that we can get reach the hearts and minds of our workers then they will act safely and everything will be great. People will care about one another, they will follow the procedures, and safety will have been achieved.

There’s just one problem – humans are not that simple. Social psychological research suggests attitudes (which are often rooted in their beliefs) are only very weakly associated with their behaviors (Myers, 2010). This is particularly true for safety and health behaviors. You do not have to look far to get evidence to suggest that attitudes and behaviors are often contradictory. Ask anyone who smokes cigarettes how much they value their life and you’ll get a similar answer as if you asked someone who doesn’t smoke. Their attitudes about their health are roughly the same, but the behaviors differ greatly.

Or even look at yourself – chances are if you’re reading this you’re someone who cares about safety and health. Within the last few months have you done anything that if you had seen someone else doing it you would have said it was unsafe? Chances are the answer is yes.

And this is why “hearts and minds” strategies on their own are often going to be unsuccessful. The implication in these strategies is that if we could only get our workers to care more about safety then they would be safe. The problem is that your workers already do care about safety. They are not uncaring idiots. The problem is that they aren’t connecting those attitudes to the behaviors that you want to see.

So why is it that people are connecting their attitudes of wanting to be safe and healthy? Well, to give you some ideas, here’s some cases where research suggests that attitudes DO affect behavior:
  • When social influences are minimized;
  • When other influences on behavior are minimized; or,
  • When attitudes are potent (usually as a result of the attitude being brought to mind) (Myers, 2010).

Do you see the pattern? The environment/context the person is in is a large effect on their behavior. It’s only when those environmental influencers are minimized or that the environment brings to mind the attitude and makes it more potent than other influencers that the attitude is strong enough to influence behavior. The implication here is that if we want to really change people’s behavior, we need to change the environment they are operating in – the complex interactions of abstract goals, social features, equipment, and technology. Make risks more obvious, give them a clearer mental model of their environment so they can better adapt, and give them coping skills needed to balance competing goals (e.g. the old production versus safety balancing act)

This leads to one other consideration – one potential reason that your employees aren’t connecting their attitudes about safety and health to the behaviors you want to see is that the behaviors you want to see aren’t realistic. The problem isn’t that we don’t know safety and health, it’s that we don’t know the jobs our workers are doing. So we make a recommendation from a place of ignorance and are surprised when it gets ignored.


So if you’re having problems with what seems like the “hearts and minds” of your employees, you may be wise to implement a “hearts and minds” strategy of your own – get out there where the workers are turning the wrenches and get a clearer picture of the job they are doing and the environment they are in. The great thing about this is that when workers start to see you doing this you change their hearts and minds…about you. You build trust, which is one of the most valuable resources in creating safety in your organization.

Reference: Myers, D. (2010). Social Psychology (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reflections on the Safety Profession for NAOSH Week

This week in North America we celebrate the North American Occupational Safety and Health week. Like any such day or week commemorating something, it’s a time for reflecting on where we’ve come and where we’re going. As a profession we’ve made some great strides. According to the latest statistics, far fewer people are getting hurt or killed at work in North America than at any other time since we have numbers. This is something we can all be proud of.

Additionally, we see a marked increase in safety education with many more degrees in safety becoming available than ever before. This coincides with the revolution in social media, which allows the transmission of knowledge and connection of ideas from across the world in ways that were unheard of just a few decades ago. Our profession is growing stronger everyday and that is encouraging.

However, we still have much work to do to. The rates of serious injuries and fatalities continue to remain at a relative plateau and are even rising in some areas. Further, our profession remains relatively disjointed and influenced by outdated and unproven theories. Rather than rehash what’s wrong with our profession (we already did that here), we thought perhaps some ideas on a vision for the future of the safety profession would be a good way to celebrate NAOSH week. So here’s some thoughts on what our ideal future for the safety profession would be:
  • A coherent scheme for entering the profession that reliably and validly separates professionals from non-professionals so that those entering the profession have the tools they need to effectively perform the tasks of a safety professional. This would include a combination of education, experience, and certification. A safety professional recently brought up the idea of an apprenticeship system, which sounds interesting as well.
  • The safety profession would have two complimentary tracks – research and practitioners. Each track would have its own scheme for entrance, but there would be significant overlaps and both tracks would have systems of communication and feedback so that practitioners are guided by relevant research and researchers receive feedback from practitioners in a way that informs and guides new research questions.
  • Safety is no longer measured by the absence of accidents, but is measured by the presence of resilience, adaptive capacity, and success. We may even go so far as to say that traditional indicators such as recordable rates would become obsolete and replaced with a new set of proactive indicators, but that may be a bit too provocative for some. So we won’t say that out loud.
  • Safety professionals all have a strong understanding of system theories. We’re not talking about management systems (often those who understand management systems don’t understand systems theory, ironically). We mean understanding system architecture and relationships. This would help safety professionals identify organizational problems more quickly and suggest better interventions.
  • Safety will move from a profession based off of command and control, where we believe that people are a problem to control, to one of facilitation, where people are a resource to harness and are the source of safety and success in our organizations. In a way, safety would be democratized. People’s innovation and adaptability would be utilized rather than inhibited.
  • Because safety facilitates innovation, adaptive capacity, and resilience, business leaders no longer see safety as a necessary evil, but rather as a tool to achieve organizational goals, like productivity and quality. Safety professionals work actively with other organizational leaders to create success in the organization, rather than being the only one holding the organization back.


We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers as to how to achieve the above and don’t believe that our ideas don’t come with their own challenges that will have to be overcome. We just think that if we move in this direction we’ll be a lot better off than we are today. What do you think?