I’m Just Not That Into Safety Anymore

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By Rob Sams, Owner and Principal Consultant at Dolphin Safety Systems

I have spoken with a number of Managers over the past few months who have argued with me that ‘safety’ in our workplaces means that we must do everything we can to control people so that they do not hurt themselves at work. These people have said to me, “we can’t let dangerous things go untouched”; “we can’t let people make choices that may lead to them being injured” and “doing everything that is reasonably practical means that we have to have systems, and people have to follow them”.

These conversations typically end with something like “the law says that we need to provide a safe workplace, I’m not going to jail and risking my house just because someone doesn’t follow a rule. All your fluffy stuff about motivation and decision making sounds fine, but I’ve got to follow the law, so I’ll stick with implementing procedures, thanks anyway.”

If this is what ‘safety’ is all about, I’m just not that into it anymore.
If being ‘safe’ is all about controlling people in our workplaces, we need to be aware of the trade-off for controlling people’s behaviour and actions. We need to be aware that this stifles learning, and is demotivating for people who no longer have control over the decisions they make.

The need to control and fix people also creates relationships that are rigid, yet we want flexibility and mature judgement. The more we seek to control others the less we create ownership, and the more we create co-dependence and as we know co-dependence is a mental health disorder. The truth is that as we become rule focused, we shift away from empathy and become focused on compliance. Those who are attracted to compliance, rigidity and control tend not to be able to create wholesome relationships based on mutual respect and understanding. Instead, controllers ‘command’ others, ‘dictate’ to others and rarely listen. Anyone who treats another as an object will only use and abuse others and will never be respected in a mutual way.

So why is it that ‘safety’ has turned into an industry that is about control, rules, and process and less about people?

When I started in ‘safety’ in 1993, my motivation was pretty clear, I wanted to work in an industry that was all about people. But ‘safety’ seems to have changed over the years. Being in ‘safety’ now is often seen as being the ‘fun police’. So often people in safety are forced into policing and inspection roles, asked to report to management on violations and non-conformances. They are often asked to report on ‘safety numbers’ and trends. Then, when they provide this information, there is usually much debate and discussion about definitions of things like incidents and frequency rates. I know that these things frustrate many of my friends and colleagues in ‘safety’.

So many of the people I know that work in ‘safety’ got into it because they care about people, they are nurturing and kind people, they are engaging and passionate. Yet, the realities of their role mean that they rarely get to work with people and share this passion and kindness. They become known in their organisations as internal regulators, and people take a different view of them. For example, a friend wrote to me recently and shared this story:

When I introduce myself to people they usually ask the standard question; “so what do you do?” When I tell them I’m a Safety Advisor, it’s really not often that I get a positive response. Most of the time people’s faces change, and not in a good way. Their eyes scan me as though I am a different breed of a person. Sometimes they even step back slightly as if I’ve got some sort of highly communicable disease. Often they’ll say something like “oh, you’re one of those people”. Or “and you seriously enjoy that?” Or “that has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world” or “how do you enjoy all of that paperwork?”
-Safety Advisor from an International Organisation, 2014

I find this sad and disappointing, but I’m not surprised. It is hard when you are in a traditional ‘safety’ role to get away from the rigour of systems, process and control. It is expected of you, and even when you second-guess the value of this approach, it’s often easier to continue, than to try to break the nexus and change thinking. So how do people in ‘safety’ deal with these frustrations and concerns?

My friend who wrote to me, enjoys our regular catch up’s every few months where we share ideas, experiences and feelings. When they express frustrations and concerns, I don’t feel the urge or need to ‘fix them’, I don’t have to provide solutions. I just listen and ask questions that help them think through options, they need to decide what works best. For me, this is what being a friend is about, I demonstrate that I care without having to solve their problem. So sharing your thoughts with a friend who will listen, rather than solve, can be a great way to work through frustrations and concerns.

Another thing I have found to help is that, along with a number of other friends and colleagues, we’ve formed what we call a ‘Thinking Group’. A small group of us get together every 6-8 weeks and allow ourselves time to ‘think’. During these catch up’s we don’t solve problems, we don’t develop new procedures and we don’t review trends. We just pick a topic or two, and without any specific agenda, we share our thinking. This is a great way to step outside the busyness of everyday life, and away from the constant control and process of our ‘day jobs’, and use our imaginations.
I find that these are two great ways that help with deal with frustrations and concerns.

So if you can ways to work through your frustrations, what might you be able to do differently to change the way that your organisation sees ‘safety’ and limit your frustrations and concerns?

For a start, one of the methods that I have adopted is that I no longer tell people that I work in ‘safety’. I don’t want people to think that I’m interested in controlling people, policing people and reporting violations. I don’t want people to conjure up an image that I like to walk around with a check-list telling people what they are doing wrong. I don’t believe this is how you improve safety.

Instead, I tell people that I enjoy learning about how people make decisions & judgements. My work is to share this learning and help people to discern risk themselves, not for me to do it for them. My work is to coach people and ask questions, not to control them, so that they can realise themselves that they may be in danger. My job is to motivate people by providing good information in a way that helps them learn, not just nod and understand, which is typical of how ‘safety’ training is often done.

My job is to value people, their views and opinions. This often involves me helping them to think clearly. Sure there are procedures, risk assessments, investigations, however all this is done thinking first about the people who are going to be involved, not just what the law says.

My jobs is let to people have control of their own decisions.
I wonder, if you are one of those people like my friend, who are frustrated with how ‘safety’ is viewed, whether you might be able to change the way that you go about your job? If you switched controlling to supporting, would people view you differently? I’d love it if the next time my friend goes to a party that people would appreciate what they do and, even thank them, rather than alienate them.

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