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7 Things We Learned at ASSE Safety 2014 Conference

June 11, 2014

I’m currently at the Safety 2014 conference here in Orlando, FL, this week, where Select International is both speaking and exhibiting. It’s been a great event so far, and my colleagues and I have enjoyed some really great, informative sessions. While it’s hard to condense everything we have taken away so far, here are some highlights:

safety 1. We miss out on a TON of opportunities to reinforce safe behavior. Did you know that we have as many as 800 opportunities per hour to reinforce other people’s behavior?? I must admit I was surprised by this but, in work environments, this is the case if you look at all of the time you have. But the main take-away for me was -- we need to look at all the opportunities we have throughout the day and take more advantage of this. For leaders, this is especially critical. And when you do reinforce behavior, you need to remember to give more positive feedback than constructive feedback. Presenters gave useful tips on this; they recommended anywhere from a 4:1 to a 7:1 ratio of positive vs. constructive feedback. This is an area where leaders simply cannot go wrong. I have coached many individuals over the years on safety leadership, and I have yet to have one of them tell me that they already reinforce behavior and give enough praise to people for doing something right. It’s easier said than done, however, we have to be deliberate in giving feedback. But it’s helpful to remember you have THAT many opportunities in the average day!

2. People lie behind each level of control. Here is a great question for you – would you consider Lock-Out/Tag-Out to fall under the level of Isolation, Engineering, or Control? He asked the audience and most responded, “Isolation.” In reality, he said it’s an Administrative control because before any energy source is isolated by LO/TO, someone has to actually do the lock-out/tag-out procedure, and they must do it correctly. I thought that brought forth a great point about how it’s hard to fully separate the person from the environment, and vice-versa. People are always connected in some way to the environment and equipment on a work site and their behaviors have a big impact on the quality and reliability of many controls we put in place. For this reason, the presenter reminded the audience that we should never become overconfident in our layers of control.

3. Toolbox talks should be 70% listening and 30% talking. You may have experienced this before, but some leaders think that the more they talk, the better results they’ll see from their people. When it comes to safety, many supervisors think that toolbox talks are where they need to tell, tell, tell, and pontificate about safety. But some of the speakers made a great point – listen more, talk less. And that 70% of the time should be dedicated to listening to the team members discuss safety concerns and improvement ideas. It’s always nice to come away with a simple, practical, guideline such as this. Any leader or safety professional can use the “70/30” as a nice reference point for how much talking and how much (more) listening they really need to do in order to get their team members engaged in safety meetings.

4. Look at your Stop Card usage as a leading indicator of safety. Here is a good one. Your people have stop cards and are given authority to stop work anytime they see something unsafe. OK … but when was the last time someone actually used it? And, how many times has a Stop Card been used in the past year? One presenter reminded us that in actuality, using a Stop Card is often received quite poorly and can result in subtle forms of punishment. It may not go down very well with a supervisor or co-workers who really just want to get done so they can go home on time. So if you want to REALLY get a good measure of your company’s safety culture, find out how often anyone uses this process, and what happened afterward.

5. Just when you think you have it right, you learn something new about safety. Dr. Scott Geller gave a passionate presentation on safety, and as one of the founding fathers of Behavior Based Safety, it was quite surprising to hear him say that for a long time, he himself had gotten it wrong many years ago. He went on to make a strong case for how, in safety, we have gone from Behavioral Based Safety to Personal Based Safety, and now on to Commitment Based Safety. This is a change in focus that is similar to when we try to shift from compliance to participation and engagement, which leads to sustainable culture change. The focus now is on commitment to safety rather than pure compliance.

6. Rules are addictive. Rules and policies tend to be additive - we rarely eliminate them but we merely add new ones, which makes them so numerous that no one can any longer differentiate between those that are critical, nice to have if you have time, and those that no longer make any sense. It’s time to stop and think about why people tend to bend or violate the rules, and address the people side of the equation as well as how we design the work, rather than just adding more volumes of policies and procedures that are not likely to be read anyway.

7. Murphy's Law (in Reverse) happens when you are near Zero Incidents: Dr. Sidney Dekker made a thought-provoking presentation that questioned many common assumptions in the health and safety field. One in particular that stood out to me was the observation that “Anything that can go wrong usually won't go wrong.” When it comes to safety incidents, this success in turn makes us more complacent, which consequently, increases our likelihood of an incident. The low frequency of safety incidents actually works against us in the end, and is the enemy of building a true safety culture.

These are just a few of the many useful take-aways that we here at Select International have gotten from this year’s ASSE Conference. Hopefully, all those who attended this year can take away some of the great insights and research findings that are being shared here this week, and apply them to the workplace in ways that can truly reduce exposure in the workplace.


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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.