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3 Things I Learned (and 3 Questions I Asked) From the Iowa-Illinois Safety Conference

May 14, 2014

A few weeks ago, Select International exhibited and presented at the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council’s (IISC) annual conference and expo, in Cedar Rapids, IA. It was a great event, with many great speakers covering a variety of important topics in the health, safety, and environment realm. While I took away many valuable lessons and learning points, there were three in particular that I thought about quite a bit:

4596469331. Driving while talking on a hands-free phone really is just as dangerous as talking on a handheld phone. I have heard this and read about it, of course, but have always assumed that using a hands-free phone had to be at least a little bit safer than talking on a handheld. However, after listening to keynote speaker David Teater, from the National Safety Council (NSC), it became clear that this is simply not the case. The research clearly shows you are just as likely to have a motor vehicle accident while using a hands-free device because the real risk is that your conversation distracts you enough to have inattentional blindness, in which you can completely miss an object directly in your field of vision. Mr. Teater really brought the point home when he shared that he had lost his 12 year old son Joseph back in 2004 because of a distracted driver.

Luckily, awareness is really increasing around the topic of risks associated with cell phone use, and many large companies are starting to put in place policies that forbid the use of ANY phone or mobile device while driving. I think about everyone I know – friends, family, and co-workers - uses at least a hands-free phone while driving. So this is clearly a major exposure factor for many of us. However, I could not help to then think – what about those who are already more easily prone to distraction because their SafetyDNA is lower on Awareness of Surroundings? Our research shows that about 20-25% of people are fall within this category statistically. Are they driving around each day one step closer to a crash than others? How many near misses have they experienced on the roads that they didn’t even notice while talking on their hands-free phone? And for those that are higher on this factor, does this make them overconfident about their awareness on the roads? While distracted driving is absolutely a risk to every one of us, it raises interesting questions when you consider that every driver behind the wheel has a different level of awareness, which can increase their risk differently.

2. We often think safety only applies to us at work. Another great presentation was that of keynote speaker Tony Crow, who worked for a utilities company for 20 years. While working there he understood and followed all the safety rules. Sadly, one day while hunting, he was accidentally shot by another hunter and lost his vision completely for life. His story is very moving and powerful, and one of the points he made which really stuck in my mind was that when we think of “safety,” we usually think of safety policies, procedures, PPE, training, etc. But it’s almost always in a work environment context. Yet research again shows that you’re more likely to be injured outside of the job than in the job. Tony’s story really reminds us that safety is something we always have to think about regardless of where we are – at work, at home, with our family and friends, on the road – anytime, anywhere. 

Doing the type of work and research that we do at Select International, however, it’s hard to not think about those individuals who are just naturally more inclined to avoid risks, no matter where they are. The part of SafetyDNA associated with this behavior, Exhibiting Caution, is what makes some people naturally want to sit on the beach rather than go jet skiing, or planning important meeting days ahead of time versus just winging it completely. I think about how we are all different in this respect, which means that some of us are more likely than others to be safe at home as well as at work. If you see more potential risks in everyday activities, as is the case with people higher on Exhibiting Caution, you are probably more likely to test the smoke alarms in your house more often, or use a ladder instead of a chair when changing a light bulb. So while we must be mindful of our personal safety both in and outside of work, we can reduce our exposure in our lives even further if we know how much Caution we naturally have in our SafetyDNA and what our resulting personal risk tendencies are.

3. Safety incentive programs can work if they are done correctly. I have heard a lot of different opinions and findings about safety incentive and reward programs, and overall, they have been mixed. For this reason, I really found Jerry Van Oort’s presentation very helpful. He broke down these programs into various elements and provided various helpful insights that could easily be applied by safety professionals. One simple but important point he made was that we should not reward people for just following the rules and doing their job. If an employee is required to wear a hard hat in a given work area, and that is a well-known basic safety policy, why should we reward it? Oftentimes safety incentive programs just reward people for doing what is already fully expected, rather than for more proactive and effortful safety behavior, such as identifying a potential new hazard and helping to think of a way to eliminate it. Motivational theory supports this recommendation because monetarily rewarding a behavior often has unintended effects and can send the wrong message about what we are actually trying to reinforce.

But the big question which came to mind for me was: which individuals respond best to safety reward programs? It would be interesting to look at a group of employees based on whether they are high or low on Rule Following, and then see whether one group responds differently to safety reward programs. As we discussed this past month on our blog, some people naturally gravitate towards the rules, while others tend to dislike and break the rules. It’s simply part of our SafetyDNA. If we conducted such a study, I suspect we would see that the high rule followers might be less motivated by safety reward programs because they already naturally follow the rules without any sort of monetary incentive. But for the low rule following group, perhaps the promise of a new gas grill, power tool or a generous gift card might suddenly make the rules seem that much more attractive.

In summary, safety is a complex thing, and there is not one “magic bullet” that can take you to zero incidents overnight. As we all know, there are so many different factors that contribute to incidents and injuries. The IISC Conference and Expo this year brought to our attention so many of these different factors that we must consider. From distracted driving, to letting our guard down outside of work, to safety reward programs, and so many other topics (which I could not cover here), they all contribute important pieces to the puzzle. SafetyDNA is one of those factors, and because it deals with people, it can interact with almost any other element in the health and safety space to either decrease or multiply our level of risk.

Join us next week as we continue our series on the S.A.F.E. Model of SafetyDNA, as we discuss why some of us are more cautious than others, and the different ways in which this increases our exposure to risk and injury.

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.