Do workplace injuries happen because people just aren’t paying attention? Is safety common sense? According to Senior Safety Trainer Mark Woodward, paying attention is only half the battle. In this episode, he discusses this and other safety myths standing in the way of safer workplaces. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which you can also hear using the player.
What are some of the biggest safety myths floating around out there?
One of the biggest safety myths I hear is that someone got hurt because they were being stupid, or because they weren’t thinking about the job. And I understand why people say that, but from my point of view, safety is absolutely not just a simple, “common sense” thing. If I’m hunting with my oldest son, Jacob – he’s 13 – and I hand him a loaded shotgun with no training at all, does Jacob have the common sense to operate it without at least some instruction? That’s not a “common sense” thing.
When business owners or safety managers take this mindset, they’re neglecting their responsibility to train their employees on specific safety issues that really do get people hurt. When I hear someone say that safety’s common sense, it bothers me. No, it’s not. It’s absolutely not.
How many of us have been working at home – doing the dishes, mowing the yard, working in the garage – and been hurt? Maybe we stuck ourselves with a pocket knife, got something in our eye, or slipped and fell. We’ve all been injured; it’s happened to us. Nobody’s above it. It’s not about common sense, it’s about risk.
Everybody has risk. Some of us have more risk because we’re in dangerous occupations. When you’re using dangerous equipment for complicated tasks in high-risk jobs, safety isn’t common sense. It requires training, it requires expectations, and it requires someone to enforce those safety rules.
Those are what I call safety myths. Safety takes effort, especially in certain jobs.
Mark, have you ever sustained an injury that made you rethink the way you go about safety?
Ha! Yes, I have. I’ve been a “safety guy” for 20 years, but nobody is above it. I was running my steel chainsaw on a county road one day, clearing a fence row of a bunch of little trees. I was actually volunteering for a group to clean up this piece of property. I was minding my own business; I had chaps on, steel toe boots, all my safety gear. I was running the chainsaw, trying to get rid of a stump. I was down in the ditch and I needed to reposition the saw, so I backed off the throttle but left the chain running. I’d been taught to use the bar stop to stop the chain when you’re off the throttle. But I didn’t. I ended up pulling the chain directly into my knee.
So, you know, pretty awesome. I was wearing chaps, but I didn’t realize that when I kneeled down, they slid over the side of my leg and my knee was exposed. I wasn’t paying attention. I stood up and thought, “That’s it. I’ve really done it.” It turned out I was very lucky, and it just caused a cut. It didn’t get into anything serious. But that was my reset button. As a safety guy, I try to reflect on these things.
When I talk to people, I ask them: Why were you injured? Why did that incident happen? They tell me over and over, “I wasn’t paying attention. I was just trying to get the job done. We were in a hurry. I was tired. I was frustrated.” I hear the same thing again and again.
That was exactly the case with me. Who wants to be cutting down invasive trees in a ditch in 100-degree weather with all this safety gear on? You want to get the job done, get out of there, and go home for the day. But we need to pay attention. It takes conscious effort to constantly reassess what you’re doing, look around you, pay attention to the hazards, put your gear on, and follow safety rules.
I always put the bar stop on. But I didn’t that day. Well, why? Are we too comfortable with the equipment? I think that day, I was.
When some businesses have had few or no accidents in the past, they may feel as if it will never happen to them. What about businesses who operate under the assumption, “It won’t happen here”?
An interesting statistic for MEM is that around 85 percent of our customers have no injuries in a given year. That’s really remarkable. What you have to keep in mind is risk. If you drive on a regular basis, you’re at risk for a vehicle crash. If you climb ladders, you’re at risk of falling off. If you move heavy things – office supplies, or anything – you’re at risk for an overexertion injury. It’s like gambling in Vegas. We win some; we lose some. What is your risk? What are you willing to bet?
I recommend that approach for businesses. At MEM, we’ve gone more than 10 years without an injury in our company. We do everything that we tell our customers to do. With 10 injury-free years, you wonder if your time’s going to run out. That’s why we keep diligently doing safety meetings and make sure safety is top of mind, so we can keep that 10 years going on to 15 or 20.
To anyone listening who hasn’t prioritized safety because of the “won’t happen here” safety myths, I’d say this: You may not have had anything happen. But when is your luck going to run out and how much is it going to cost you in terms of your people’s wellbeing and your bottom line?
One of the most common places where someone can get unlucky is behind the wheel. Multitasking can cause accidents, but other emotional tasks can become safety risks.
When I look at my own behavior when I’m driving, I’m just bored. That happens to everybody; people want to mess with their phone. They want to answer an email or try to be productive. They can’t just sit there and pay attention to the road. I have those feelings too: The phone’s buzzing, every app is alerting me, and I have the thought, “maybe I can get away with it.” You come up with excuses. There’s not much traffic. It’s a straight road. If I hold the phone in front of me higher I can see both the road and the phone. Those are all safety myths.
So, it’s boredom and the pressure to get things done. I also think it’s poor planning. We don’t get up as early as we need to. We procrastinate, and then jump in the car and speed to work because we’re late. That’s reflected in sleep patterns, too; we don’t sleep well at night. We play video games, work on a laptop, or play on Facebook all night, and then realize it’s midnight and we need to get up at 5 a.m.
I think it’s a combination of boredom, multi-tasking, and just poor planning.
What are some of the everyday traps that you or anybody listening might fall into?
The biggest one is just routine. We get used to certain behaviors. Texting and walking, for example. You’ve heard the phrase “can’t even walk and chew gum.” How do we know texting and walking is a problem? It’s number two on our injury list that we receive from our policyholders. Folks are tripping and falling over tons of stuff every day.
Another thing that people take for granted is their own health. We don’t stay healthy, eat right, or exercise. Health statistics in Missouri reflect that. Then, we come to work and expect our employer to take care of us when something goes wrong. How many injuries could be prevented if we were just healthier and our bodies could heal better, or if we were more resilient to impact forces? We see a lot of knee and shoulder injuries. How many of those were linked back to poor health in the first place?
So, some everyday traps are: Texting and driving, texting and walking, overexertion, and poor housekeeping in the organization. Then there are the business owners’ responsibilities: lack of safety meetings, clearly communicated rules, drug-free workplace policies. You have that combination of employee routine and bad habits, plus employer lack of safety awareness.
Awareness plays a key role in debunking workplace safety myths. Safety meetings can help with awareness, but it also takes cooperation between employees and their employer.
I always thought this was weird: I’ve been in situations where I’m conducting a safety meeting and basically begging employees to stay safe and protect themselves, to put on their gear. That’s what my safety meetings are: I’m begging you to pay attention and protect yourself. Think about your job. Protect your hands, eyes, fingers. And I’ve had people look back at me and say “this is a waste of time.” It’s so weird to me.
But I understand where they’re coming from, because I’m telling them to wear their gear, and they’re saying “that’s fine, Mark, I want to wear my gear – I don’t have any. The business owner or supervisor won’t order it.” They’ve got machines with broken safety guards and they’ve been telling management for a year. They have open, unguarded chains and sprockets waiting to pull people’s clothes in and injure them. They can’t get it fixed. Employees want to be safe and do these practices. They understand the value. But if management isn’t doing anything about it, why would they bother?
If management really believed in it and led the way, employees would follow suit. I wholeheartedly believe that. You may have a few employees who just don’t get it, and if that’s the case then you need to deal with them. But I believe that if you’re going to improve safety culture, you need to fix things that are broken, respond to employees, and make them believe you. It’s a moral and ethical approach to safety. That’s where those safety meetings would not be a waste of time.
If you show employees that you truly care, you will have way more positive results.