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Four Things We Shouldn’t Say

Throughout my years of serving as a safety professional, I have seen safety grow from simply telling people to “follow the rules” to engaging people in building safety cultures. I’ve also seen employees and managers shift their thinking about safety as they engage in it for all the right reasons – so we can all go home tonight. It’s refreshing!

Yet when an accident does happen, as much as we work to prevent it, I’ve also heard some questions and statements that make me wonder if we have truly advanced safety. I admit, those questions and statements might have been “the way we said it” in the past, but they can no longer be accepted if we are to grow our safety culture. Here are four things I believe we should never say again – and explanations as to why we should avoid them.

1. “Why don’t they just follow the rules?”
I can give you at least 10 reasons why people don’t. In fact, we have had rules in place for many years, yet we still are having accidents. Maybe the safety rules are vague, misunderstood or lengthy, leading to shortcuts. What we need to ask is if the rule system we have in place is effective – do employees know what’s expected of them? If they don’t know our rules, how can we expect employees to follow them? One solution is to move to basic life-saving rules. These are the rules we need people to know and follow.

2. “Safety is just common sense.”
I must ask, is it? Safety is only common sense after someone explains a safety rule or procedure to you. You then take that knowledge, store it and apply it next time you encounter that situation. For example, how do people learn to never touch a downed line? Because someone told them not to. Why do our lineworkers use three points of contact when getting in and out of the cab of the truck? Because someone told them to. You get the point. Unfortunately, some people don’t heed the good advice.

3. “They must be disciplined.”
The act of disciplining employees is slowly becoming extinct, just like the dinosaurs from “Jurassic World.” Yet for some employers, the first thought after an incident is that we need to make an example of the employee who erred. The employee must pay for his mistake and we will teach him a lesson. Why? Because that is what we have always done.

However, studies are now showing that blame and punishment seldom result in a safer workplace. We must realize employees don’t come to work to intentionally have an accident. We must acknowledge that all of us make mistakes and that we sometimes drift from our safe work practices. In fact, I once heard the phrase, “You can’t fire your way to a solution.”

So, ask yourself, what is our goal? Is it to have a safer workplace? Then, instead of sending someone home, hold the person accountable and use the accident as a learning opportunity for all. Look to where and how we could have stopped the accident in the first place. When we hold people accountable and are focused on finding solutions, we make positive changes in our safe work practices and environment. We stop the accident from happening again.

Now, just to be clear, I do acknowledge there are times when discipline must be administered, but it must be done in a cautious and thoughtful manner.

4. “What were they thinking!”
This statement is the one I hear most often. We exclaim it with such astonishment, along with a tone of disgust or anger. So, consider this: What if we made the same statement but replaced the exclamation point with a question mark (“What were they thinking?”)? That question opens the door to explore and understand the actions and decisions that led to a bad outcome.

I recently heard a speaker discussing human error, and the speaker stated that often human error is not a “person” problem but instead may be a leadership problem. As leaders, we have influenced behaviors of our employees that we don’t even realize. We might tell the crews to always put safety first, and then we call out to them in the field a couple hours later and ask them why it is taking them so long to complete the job. Yes, we also are part of the problem and must acknowledge that we all play a role in an accident.

Have you said any of these four things before? It’s likely most of us have, but these statements damage our safety culture. So, let’s get to work and change our approach. Let’s start now. We may not always get it right. Then again, we just might.

About the Author: Lidia Dilley Jacobson is the director of safety and loss control for the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, which serves 50 rural electric cooperatives in Minnesota. She is an experienced safety professional with 32 years in the industries of explosives, nuclear and electricity, and her work has involved technical, compliance-based and managerial responsibilities. Jacobson’s last 12 years have been focused on the electrical industry.

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