Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A View From The Other Side

A strange thing happened to us here at SCM – we had our first OSHA recordable injury in our history. An employee was at a client’s site where the client had recently bought a 175 lbs. (about 80 kg) rescue dummy that was temporarily placed in someone’s office. Our employee joined a few other employees who decided to see if they could lift the dummy and subsequently strained muscles in his abdomen and lower back. He went to the doctor and was prescribed some pain medications and took some time off to recover.

Now, we could certainly write a blog about the incident itself, but the incident seems pretty straightforward overall (you can’t fix stupid!). Instead, the thing that was most interesting was being on the other side of an incident and feeling the pressure that others feel. Now we know the things that need to happen, but knowing what needs to be done is different than being in the situation.

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about – obviously our employee’s well-being is our first priority and meeting all regulatory requirements and ethical responsibilities is our second priority and everything else falls below those two things. However, in addition to these priorities, we have other goals that should be considered. For example, we also don’t want to look bad to our client. We also don’t want to look bad on paper in terms of our incident rates. We also want to save money on our Worker’s Compensation insurance.

We know that each of those goals is not as important as our priorities stated above. But that doesn’t mean that the pressure of those competing goals doesn’t exist and the interesting thing we experienced was how much we felt that pressure from those competing goals. This doesn’t mean that we should give in to those pressures, but it also doesn’t mean that those pressures are not exerting influence on people’s behaviors, changing the range of potential actions.

Now, to make a long story short, we are doing our best to deal with this incident by meeting our priorities and then learning what we can from the event, but one learning point is clear – the world looks a lot different when you’re in the situation versus being a retrospective observer.

Some of the responses we got to a blog we wrote a few weeks ago about punishment and human error were, understandably, skeptical. After all, shouldn’t we hold people accountable to their decisions? Here’s the thing though, as a retrospective observer it’s easy to say that safety should always be first or that someone should have stood up against the system or something like that. But that’s us seeing things from the side where we know the outcomes and there are no more pressures. When you view things from the other side, from the side of those doing the work, where it’s unclear how the choices you make will lead to different outcomes, where competing goals are exerting pressure on you, things aren’t so easy.

Now, we aren’t saying that there should not be accountability. But we are saying that perhaps the systems we have set up for our people are not doing them any favors. If we as safety professionals continually put people in environments where pressures from outside are working against them doing the right thing we should not be surprised when some people do the wrong thing. The fact is that environments influence behavior, and social science research consistently shows that the environmental influence is often far more profound than we think.

So next time you’re looking at someone’s behavior, and it doesn’t make sense to you – try to remember that you’re viewing the world from a different perspective than the person you’re observing. Try to see things from their perspective. See the complexity, the uncertainty, the confusion, the messiness. Then you might be in a better place to suggest interventions. Then you might not be so focused on changing that person. Rather, we might begin to make progress in creating an environment that actually helps people create safety, instead of one that hinders it.

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