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4 Psychological Safety Traits that Impact ISO 45001 Implementation

March 28, 2018

safety traits impact iso 45001

If you’re in charge of OHS at your workplace, you’ve probably considered whether the new ISO 45001 standard makes sense for your company. You’ve likely read about it or heard people in the industry discussing it. Or you may be wondering whether your company is ready for the requirements and the process involved. There are several factors which can impact the implementation and eventual success of any ISO standard within an organization, such as its size, nature of operations, current OHS policies, or available resources. However, one factor you will not typically hear about is arguably the most important – the people who make up the organization.

We sometimes forget that it’s ultimately the people who really run an organization and determine its success. Let’s face it – while processes and standards are very useful, they will only be as good as the people who implement and utilize them. In last week’s post I wrote about the ways in which assessing for people’s psychological safety traits and using this data to develop safer behaviors can be a valuable and proactive part of an organization’s ISO 45001 implementation strategy.

So, what sorts of psychological traits should we measure as part of that strategy? Which ones would have the most impact on safety? Based on decades of research in the field of Industrial & Organizational Psychology, the four traits below make up a person’s unique SafetyDNA. Each can play an important part in a successful ISO 45001 roll out.

1. Control

Control is the extent to which you believe that you can control future outcomes through your present actions. Some individuals feel that they decide their own fate, while others are more fatalistic and believe that things happen based on luck and circumstance. As I noted last week, one of the most important goals of the new ISO standard is to help make safety a shared responsibility across all parts of the business instead of putting the burden solely on OHS staff. Implementing ISO 45001 at your company will be much easier for employees who are naturally high on the Control trait already. They will already tend to see safety as something that is within their control. These individuals are the ones who tend to take personal ownership for safety and often do things to improve safety without being told.  Those who are lower in control may struggle to see how they can personally mitigate risks within their workplace and are less likely to get involved in your ISO 45001 implementation.

How Can I Help Those Low on Control?

The key with these individuals will be to help them believe that they do play an important role and that they have the ability and authority to bring up safety concerns, stop unsafe work, and make safety suggestions. By reminding these individuals that they have many opportunities to impact safety every day and showing them that their opinion matters, individuals can learn to exhibit more control over their personal safety. It can also be helpful to give them feedback when you hear them blaming others, or saying things such as “There’s nothing I can do” or “How was I supposed to know?”

2. Awareness

The Awareness factor deals with how much people see and remember in their immediate surroundings, especially when doing multiple tasks. People who are high on awareness simply see and remember more information than others, are less distracted, and tend to have better working memory.

ISO 45001 is predicated largely on assessing potential risks rather than just mitigating hazards. This means that your employees have to start seeing things a little bit differently.  To properly implement the new standard, people must go beyond the usual known hazards that they’ve been identifying for years and start looking below the surface at their everyday environment in more detail. Attention to detail and vigilance are critical for this, as employees must look for things that they are not necessarily on the usual hazard checklist.  Some will find it harder to do this because their natural, resting state of awareness is lower, especially when they are busy working on multiple tasks. These folks will only notice the same old things they always noticed before – unless they get some help.

How Can I Help Those Low on Awareness?

While you can’t really raise a person’s innate awareness levels, you can coach them on the types of things to look for and how to identify potential risks.  Invite them to walk through the work site with you and ask them to point out any hazards or risks to you.  Show them potential risks that you see and coach them on WHY those situations have inherent risk.  Another helpful suggestion is to have an employee who is low on Awareness partner up on work assignments and ask their co-worker to provide a “second set of eyes” in case they missed a critical detail.  Many an injury has been avoided by a helpful and attentive co-worker who spotted an issue or mistake before it was too late!

3. Rules

The Rules factor is essentially the degree to which you follow rules versus bend them – especially the ones you don’t like. Rule-bound individuals see rules in a very strict and narrow fashion, and will sometimes even create a rule where none exists because they like the structure and predictability of rules. They like to know there’s a “right” way to do something. Those who are low on Rules, however, tend to see rules in a very flexible manner. They see rules as mere general guidelines that can be ignored depending on the overall situation.

While the new ISO standard tends to emphasize risk assessment rather than providing various recommended policies, it’s safe to say that a good ISO 45001 process will likely lead your company to implement some critical new safety policies for high exposure activities, or at least provide clearer reinforcement of these policies. These are often referred to as "Life Saving Rules" or "Cardinal Rules" of safety, and those should be part of any good safety management system. However, a Life Saving Rule is only effective when people follow it consistently. So as your ISO implementation takes place, it’s important to remember that some employees will find it easy to follow the safety rules and others will be voicing their opinion and asking endless questions about why they have to follow these rules.

How Can I Help Those Low on Rules?

Usually, these folks are not trying to be obstinate or put themselves in danger. They usually have a good rationale in their mind for why a rule doesn’t make sense or why it is preventing them from doing a good job. As a result, they tend to question why certain rules are in place, and they are often satisfied by simply knowing the logic behind a safety policy. Therefore, you will find that in many cases if you simply take the time to talk with them, answer their concerns, and provide honest, logical reasons for why safety rules are in place, it will help them to see things differently and abide by the rule. Whenever possible, you should show any data or evidence (e.g., past injuries or near hit events) that support the safety policy which they are questioning. This will help them see that you are not trying to make their job harder by having rules “just for the sake of rules” but rather, because you want to make sure they go home safely every day to their family.

4. Caution

Lastly, the Caution factor deals with the level of discomfort you feel with risk-taking. Those who are higher on Caution are naturally risk-averse and tend to really think things through before they take action. Conversely, those who are low on Caution are naturally more comfortable with risk, tend to be impulsive, and don’t consider all the potential consequences of their actions. This factor becomes essential in the new ISO 45001 framework, which is all about assessing risk. While we have good methods in place to quantitatively measure risk in the workplace, ultimately, there is always a human who is responsible for assessing the situation and assigning a risk level based on likelihood, severity, and other factors. An employee who is inherently lower on Caution will naturally perceive less risk and think of fewer preventive actions when they complete a job hazard analysis (JHA) compared to a person who is higher on Control. 

How Can I Help Those Low on Caution?

In my experience coaching and working with thousands of employees and leaders over the years, it can be very helpful to these individuals if you first help them be aware of their higher risk propensity relative to the general population. This holds for all of the factors I’ve listed here, but it is especially true for Caution. Once they have this valuable self-insight, it can be very helpful to identify a list of most frequent exposures based on their usual work activities and identifying one or two simple actions they can take in those specific instances to reduce their risk. Ultimately, the goal is to help low Caution employees – before starting any work with potential risks – develop a habit of asking themselves, “What could go wrong here?”

By understanding these important safety traits and helping your people see how their own SafetyDNA influences their behavior, your organization can further support an ISO 45001-based safety management system that results in a safer workplace for the long haul.

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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.