Ask ‘why?’ before solving any safety problem

I presented a session at the North Dakota Safety Conference yesterday in Bismarck on Safety Observation Skills for Supervisors.

The course is about helping people understand and solve underlying issues surrounding workplace hazards. It is also about building a positive culture that encourages broad worker involvement and learning through operational insight and experience.

In preparing for the session, I thought about the late Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he discusses the important concept of maintaining an “emotional bank account.” Using the bank account as a metaphor, Covey describes how deposits are positive actions that build trust and withdrawals are negative actions that diminish trust. He recommends always making more deposits than withdrawals. When an emotional back account is in the red, the ability to regain trust and work effectively is significantly hindered.

Similarly, safety management requires holding the system accountable. This does not always feel positive to people working within the system. That’s why we need to consistently recognize the good in people and reward them for doing the right thing. In essence, we need to make deposits in our safety accounts every chance we get!

One way to recognize the good in people is to practice one of the seven habits: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This means taking time to understand the context of situations in which people work. When people are not following an established procedure, it’s important to ask “Why?” There may be a good reason.

This brings to mind a wake-up call I received about five years after I graduated from college. On two consecutive days I asked workers to “please move the work table away from the egress aisle.” On the third day, the table had not been moved. It upset me because it appeared the workers had disregarded my request.

I asked myself, “When will these people ever learn?” But I had the foresight to pause and ask them why. What the workers said changed more than my opinion of them; it changed my fundamental leadership style from dictator/authoritarian to questioner/problem-solver.

They told me the lights where their work table was supposed to be located had burned out and no one listened when they brought it up. In essence, it was less safe to work where I had been asking them to work. The lights were fixed the very same day and a better working relationship was forged moving forward.

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