Safety Is Plagued By Perception

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

If there’s one universal obstacle every safety professional will certainly have to deal with it’s perception. To be clear, I’m not stating in the least that the obstacle is the same for everyone. But it’s always there.

Sometimes perception tells workers we (safety) don’t care about anything except the numbers. Sometimes it tells leadership we’re unnecessary overhead. sometimes it declares great achievement when we’re really just lucky (to be fair, sometimes perception says the opposite as well). The list could continue forever.

My point is that, like it or not, perception is the barometer of our success. I believe that to be true regardless of how accurate that perception may be. And in my experience, it often isn’t accurate at all.

Unless…

I hope you didn’t think I was about to rant about how unfair our work is. Granted, it’s easy to feel that way in such a misunderstood profession. What I want to drive toward in this post is something a bit more abstract: Culture.

An old friend and colleague (forever named Gunny for his USMC service), sent me a topic request and asked me to cover that very subject. For the sake of keeping our Air Force/Marine rivalry alive and well, I’ll take the obligatory jab and state for the record that he should have known better than to give me such a blank canvas. Maybe not though, he might have just gotten a new box of crayons… (Just FYI for those who didn’t serve, I would suggest against making that joke unless you know the person and you also served).

Back to the point. Since Gunny asked me to write something about culture, I’ve been dutifully pondering just what makes a good one. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really have an answer to that question. That frustrated me, because I don’t like feeling dumb. So I pondered some more. The first thing I had to do was figure out what culture even means.

It’s The Way We Do Things Around Here…

That’s not my definition. I read it somewhere along the way (If anyone reading this knows who said it, please let me know so I can give them their due). I think it’s an appropriate definition though. So let’s theorize a little with it.

Let’s say you take a Safety Professional role at a facility where the way they do things just sucks. I’m sure that’s familiar territory for many of us. If your job was to make a positive change how would you accomplish that?

  1. New Behavior Based programs?

  2. “Awareness” campaigns? (Make sure you think that one over)

  3. A “Zero (fill in the blank)” philosophy?

  4. Safety incentives?

In case you’re not interested in clicking the links, I’m not (nor would I ever) advocate any of that. Criticize if you will, but give me a concrete example of those types of things working (and don’t bother if you want to talk about incident rates). I’ll wait…

So What Works?

Simplicity. If you want to change the way people do things, they have to be willing to talk about why the current way sucks. Then you have to figure out how to get them to fix it. None of us is the safety savior come again to rescue all the lost souls. I don’t claim to be either, so I can’t say I have the perfect answer to accomplishing that simplistic goal. Here’s where I would start:

  1. Build trust by doing what you say you’ll do.

  2. Don’t get wrapped up in things that don’t matter.

  3. Never assume ill intent for the risky things you see people do (without good reason). Coach them through it instead.

  4. Help workers through their plans.

  5. Build useful tools.

Let’s Circle Back

I started this post talking about perception for good reason. It’s something I struggle with a lot. I started there because I know that when I’m feeling useless or undervalued as the safety leader in my organization, I often get bitter. For that reason, this post is as much for me as it is for anyone. Being bitter doesn’t help my organization (or me for that matter). So, I remind myself: work on the culture, perception will take care of itself.

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#culture #OSHA #perception

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