A couple of days ago I took a free safety culture assessment online just to see what kind of feedback I would get. I got a five-star rating. Then I went outside to water the garden, tripped over the hose and broke my wrist.
So, I began to reflect on the connection between having a strong safety culture and reducing accidents? First, what is a strong safety culture? Some of the elements often mentioned are having a supervisor that listens and responds to your concerns and supplies you with the resources you need. Well I certainly had that in my home.
Another element often talked about is psychological safety. Is it safe for me to speak up if I feel the job is unsafe? Is it safe for me to admit that I made a mistake? And the answer was, “yes.” Other common themes are: does your boss care about you, do you trust your boss, and are you included in the development of procedures? My reply to those questions would again be “yes.”
So why did I have an accident? Obviously, I did not spot the hazard, so my awareness was low. Why was that? I was surrounded by psychological safety in my house. So maybe the problem was outside my home. I was anxious about a pending hearing for a lawsuit and it had just been postponed. My country is in the midst of a difficult presidential election. At the same time there are several economic threats in the environment and my income has fallen quite a bit. Could those factors affect myself awareness?
Yet, there were internal factors at play too. I live alone and the Covid-19 virus has isolated me from my friends. I have felt quite lonely at times even though I have a lot of virtual connections. I also think my age plays a factor because older people tend to fall more often than younger people.
Now, you may be thinking that the solution is mindfulness and yoga for balance. I agree, but I had been meditating twice a day and doing yoga three times a week. So, it looks like most of the elements affecting my awareness we’re not in management’s control. What goes on at home and the larger society impacts our awareness and decision-making at work. Age, physical state and mental state all play a role in accidents. Since this is part of the human condition what could management do to address these social hazards?
Sometimes Bad Things Just Happen
There is a part of me that believes that sometimes bad things just happen. However, the social conditions surrounding us at this time also show up during layoffs and mergers. They do incite distracting emotions that are usually tempered by knowing that there are people around us that care and will help us when we are in need.
This is why I began to explore the relational aspects of safety performance. As Prof Sidney Dekker (2019) wrote, safety is a social science. That has always been true. Yet whenever I bring up that we must first put the social systems in place to support the technical systems some people respond that I am creating a false dichotomy. They are interconnected and equally important. Of course the technical systems are very important. However, unless the social needs of employees are met the resulting lack of trust and open communication can sabotage procedures, protocols and engineering efforts. It is true that the social and technical systems must be aligned and support each other. However historically, the safety engineering and compliance aspects have dominated the safety profession. We have safety engineers, not safety psychologists.
So it is difficult to shift that mindset to putting the social first. Nevertheless, the most frequent reason that the implementation of new technology fails is resistance from the users. Management tends to underestimate the length of time it takes to acclimate employees to new systems. The reason is that it took a long time for the old system to be shaped into something workable. Unless people are given enough time to understand the new system and assure themselves that they will be able use the new system with ease, there will be a lot of complaints and possibly failures.
The Moral of the Story
Since every tale has the moral to it, what can we take away from this one? I think we all agree that our level of awareness plays an important role in preventing injuries. Anything that is perceived as a threat can affect it. So, if we look at our current approaches to accident prevention is there something consistently missing?
Once we have aligned our safety systems to mitigate risk, we need to turn our attention to the most powerful system in the room, which is the human brain. There is no doubt, based on neurological research, up that the human brain relies on belonging to a social group for survival. The Covid era has isolated people and exposed divisions that were deeper than we could have imagined. Faced with this challenge how can we make the social network more visible and concrete? This would create a greater sense of support and belonging.
One thing we can do is to begin to talk about the importance of our relationships, how we speak to each other, how we talk about others and develop the social emotional skills needed for empathy to take root. Empathy is the path to inclusion, which leads to belonging; thus ensuring that our social systems are aligned to produce psychological safety is as essential as aligning the engineering systems to mitigate physical hazards.
Navigating the social systems is the challenge facing safety professionals today. It will require knowledge in three areas: socio-tech systems thinking, mindfulness and socio-emotional intelligence. We have come to recognize the importance of trust, relationships, and conversation. Now it is time to implement the strategies that we know work. There is no silver bullet to increase trust in a relationship. Sometimes it takes trial and error as well as a great deal of persistence. This too will be required of safety professionals who work with people.
Dekker, S. (2019). Foundations of Safety Science: A Century of Understanding Accidents and Disasters. United States: CRC Press.
©2020 Rosa Antonia Carrillo