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Safety is Not Just About Us

Frankie Wood-Black, Safety Expert
Frankie Wood-Black, Safety Expert

During the past four months, we have seen a great deal of change.  But there is one thing that has remained constant; safety is related to behavior.  While most of the time, we focus on our behavior, e.g., do we take short cuts, do we recognize the potential hazard, to remove the engineering control, etc., our actions also impact others. 

Many of us in industry are familiar with the concept of behavioral safety, i.e., understanding that behaviors influence the success of any safety program.  An essential element of behavioral safety is that peers recognize and highlight positive safety actions.  This comes down to recognizing and re-enforcing those good safety behaviors, actions, and practices.  The fundamental idea is to accentuate the positive and RECOGNIZE the good behaviors.  All too often, we point out the bad.  We point out the negative.  Think about how you receive negative feedback or constructive criticism.  How do you feel?  Do you put up a defense?  Do you build a wall?  We are human, and we all do it.

So, how can we make a positive difference?  We need to step up.  We need to compliment and thank those that we observe making and taking positive steps.  Have you ever thanked someone for reminding you that you don’t have your personal protective equipment on?  Think of a bicycle helmet. Even experienced cyclists have failed to put on a helmet because they are wearing a cap and think they have it on; the same goes for wearing a hard hat.  How about safety glasses or splash goggles? 

Personal disclosure, I have walked into a laboratory wearing my street glasses, and because I have glasses on, forgot to make the switch, and have appreciated the student or colleague reminding me of the “proper” eyewear.  Think about the correct gloves, wearing hearing protection, recalling the appropriate steps in a start-up or shutdown procedure.  We all have bad days or have experienced a disrupted routine, which has led to a deviation or a lapse in judgment.  Everyone needs a reminder now and then.  Think of those times when you have “zoned” out on the way to work, you have done that same drive a large number of times, but because of your distraction, tiredness, or anger have driven from point A to point B without knowing how or what actions you took to get there.

Yet, there are going to be times when we witness a potentially unsafe act.  Do you take the initiative and say something?  Ideally, we would.  Today there may be consequences that historically we would not have encountered.  For example, would you go to the aid of a person that has improperly placed a jack when changing a tire?  Or, how about securing a ladder or is using a chair on rollers as a stool?  In these cases, you are likely to go over and offer assistance.  But what about failing to wear hearing protection when using a weed eater? Or, better yet, mowing the lawn in flip flops?  Do you go and say something?

Today, we are experiencing a worldwide public health situation.  We, as scientists, have a better understanding of the mitigation of risks.  So, how do you approach a person that is not utilizing the suggested protections appropriately?  Or, are not following company or institutional policies?  

This is where tact and how you approach the situation is critical.  This is what is known as bystander intervention can come into play.  It is a concept used in a number of venues, college campuses, the U.S. Marines, and others.  The idea is that there are ways you can intervene to disrupt a potentially dangerous or violent situation.  The first step is recognizing that there is a situation that needs correction.  The second step is to assume responsibility, provided that you know how to help. 

For example, if you witness a potential unsafe act, you may want to step in and offer to help, rather than say that what the person is doing is wrong.  Or, you may just wish to stop the person and ask a question, allowing them time to think through what they are doing.  Remember the adage of stop and think?  This is a critical step. These are things we can do in a variety of situations.  The key is that you need to speak up, because allowing a dangerous situation to continue not only puts the person that performs the unsafe act at risk, but they are putting everyone else around them at risk as well. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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