Imagine you are at the tail end of a long shift, about to leave the worksite, your mind already on the things you need to do at home. So when you realize you forgot something, you skip the option to put your hardhat back on and run back onto the jobsite; it will only take a second. In that same moment, your workmate drops a tool from above. Workplace incident.
Different scenario: you and your colleague are on scaffolding, and you notice they don’t have their harness on. When you ask about it they say, “I’ve been doing this for years and it just slows me down.” You nod, feeling unsure but don’t want to be a bother. Minutes later, they trip. Workplace incident.
Some of you may be thinking these situations are fairly common; most times the tool doesn’t fall and we’ve all avoided the harness, didn’t put our seatbelt on, or didn’t use the dust mask—and it’s usually fine. When we think about workplace health and safety, we tend to think about personal protective equipment (PPE), rules and regulations, safety training, and seemingly endless process documentation and checklists. These components can be daunting, but are required and necessary for us to work safely.
So how do our brains know that all safety is important, yet in some moments, we sometimes disregard the PPE or override the process? Why do we tell ourselves “It’s okay, I’ll be careful, it’s just this once” when all it takes for our lives to change forever in an instant is “just this once?”
It’s because we are human and, by nature, we are emotional. We like to think of ourselves as logical, rational beings, but the truth is that when we are distracted it’s very easy for us to make excuses, skip the steps, and reward ourselves with a shortcut. We like easy, we like rewards—and if nothing has happened before, why would we stop now? If you’ve ever sent a text while driving, you know what I mean.
So what’s the antidote? It’s the opposite of logic and reason: your heart. We don’t often talk about the heart in the workplace, but I think we should, and here is why.
When we rely on rules and regulations, PPE, and training, our “autopilot” switches on. We tend to just follow (or sometimes slightly bend) the rules and move about our day. Now let’s imagine the workplace had a bit more of a heart. If tapping into our emotions and inner voice was more encouraged, how could those workplace scenarios look different?
It starts with having the courage to care. The actions you take in the name of safety depend greatly on feeling safe enough to speak up, to say something when you see something that isn’t quite right. In order to feel safe, we need to know we will be supported by our peers and managers. That kind of trust and support doesn’t live in a training session; it starts by setting the tone, building relationships, and having open, two-way dialogue with your colleagues.
One way I help teams break down those walls and get personal is a simple picture-sharing exercise. Each person is encouraged to share a photo of a loved one or special place that means something to them. It can be emotional for people to share like that in the workplace and it can be a powerful tool for giving colleagues the courage they need to speak up.
You may not feel inspired to put your hardhat on for a workplace protocol, but if your workplace safety culture encourages you to think about your loved ones, that inner voice just may inspire you to grab it before you run back to the jobsite. Perhaps you are confident working at heights and don’t feel the need for a harness all the time, but if your colleague felt comfortable saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got your son’s baseball practice tonight and I’m not going on your behalf,” maybe you move from autopilot to human, and your heart tells you to just put the harness on.
If you want to make your safety training matter, find ways to make it personal. When it comes down to it, we may like to believe that we think with our brains, but it’s our hearts that make a difference.
Candace Carnahan is a safety speaker and consultant who works globally with companies that recognize safety is a top priority. She will be a keynote speaker at PPSA’s annual Health and Safety Conference, Oct. 17 – 20, 2021 at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate in Florida. Learn more at ppsaconference.org.