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Human factor: When safety gets personal

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com
E. Scott Geller, partner, Safety Performance Solutions

ORLANDO — Safety managers need to pay more attention to psychology and human factors if they want to create a sustainable culture of safety where people are empowered and motivated, one behavioural psychology expert suggested.

E. Scott Geller, director at Virginia Tech’s Center for Applied Behavior Systems in Blacksburg, Va., told thousands of health and safety practitioners at the National Safety Council Congress and Expo to go beyond the traditional way of managing safety — engineer, educate, enforce — and make it more personal.

“It’s all about communicating to people in a way that they will accept it… How you talk influences how people feel,” said Geller, delivering his keynote on the second day of the NSC conference.

The challenge for safety managers and employers, he said, is getting people to speak up about safety hazards, near misses or close calls.

“How do you get people to speak up? Develop more sense of belonging, more family perspective, then more people will have courage to speak up,” said Geller, who is also a partner at consulting firm Safety Performance Solutions in Blacksburg, Va.

As an example, calling the post-injury process an “accident investigation to find the root cause” may give an impression of fault finding and discourage people from freely talking about the incident.

Geller stressed he is not against the process, but said a more positive approach or phrase should be “injury analysis to determine contributing factors.”

“We need to talk to them in a way that opens up a discussion,” he said. Develop ways to encourage “actively caring” behaviour among your workers, by rewarding and recognizing those types of deeds, Geller added.

Appealing to people’s emotions would generate more effective response from them, according to the Virginia Tech professor.

“The only way we can convince our people to think about safety is to let them know that it could happen to them,” Geller said.

Geller’s presentation was preceded by a presentation from a man who had survived a tragic accident and lived on to tell people about it.

Charlie Morecraft is a motivational speaker and strong advocate for workplace safety. But there was a period in his life when he didn’t take the importance of safety devices seriously — until he suffered a workplace injury that changed his life forever.

More than 20 years ago, Morecraft was involved in a workplace explosion that left 50 per cent of his body badly burned. At the time, he knew all the safety rules and procedures, but failed to comply.

“What caused the accident was my attitude towards safety,” Morecraft said. “We have to start taking responsibility for our own safety and stop looking at other people to keep us safe.”

Geller, who does regular speaking tours with Morecraft, said Morecraft’s story gives people a different perspective and serves to remind safety professionals why they do what they do.

Developing a safety culture should not just be about highlighting the negative outcomes, but rewarding and recognizing positive behaviours.

“Our culture, unfortunately, is punishment-oriented,” Geller said. “We need to do better than that.” He said workers should be encouraged to work not to avoid negative consequences, but to achieve positive effects.

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