How Safety Leaders Can Build Habit Strength Like A Pro Athlete

how safety leaders can build habit strength like pro athletes ireport source

“My take on a risk is we have to somehow figure out the human element portion of risk as much as we can,” says Gary Higbee, President/CEO of SafeStart and Higbee & Associates, Inc. We sat down with Gary for a two-part series on how to reduce workplace complacency and how to help your employees to develop advanced safety skills and safety awareness.In this post, we’ll take a look at what you need to understand before minimizing complacency. Then we’ll cover ways you can develop habit strength so that you can help individuals to keep themselves safe, even if the system around them breaks down. (Find the first blog post in the series here to catch up on what we’ve already covered.)

Figuring Out the Human Element

Another part of SafeStart’s at risk behavioral model: sources of the unexpected. “To get hurt, you must have at a minimum enough energy to cause an injury. And you have to come in contact with the energy, and something unexpected has to happen,” says Gary. So what does that mean? Gary says there are three sources of the “unexpected”:

  • Mechanical: These breakdowns occur with no warning, or if there are signs of the failure, the employee didn’t see those signs.
  • The other person: This is when another person does something that wasn’t anticipated.
  • Ourselves: This is when we do something we never intended to do. “This source of the unexpected is where over 90% of injuries originate,” says Gary.Under this umbrella, Gary sees 4 critical errors that give people the most trouble. That list includes: our minds are not on the task; our eyes are not on the task; we’re “in the life of fire”; or we lose our balance/traction/trip, etc.

The connection here is this: if someone makes one of those critical errors, it’s true that they will not always get hurt. But each time they make one of those errors, they are increasing the likelihood of getting hurt, and they also increase the potential severity of injury. Telling someone to be cautious is a nice idea, but it can ignore all of what Gary describes about human nature. The key, instead, is developing safety skills and fighting complacency. That’s where developing habit strength comes into play.

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What is ‘Habit Strength’ for Safe Behaviors? 

The best way to fight complacency is to get people to do the right things, the right way, all the time. And the best way to do that is through habit strength, says Gary. There are negative habits…and there are good habits. We want people to do more of the positive habits that help them to be safer, as obvious as it may sound. “When I was walking on the sidewalk, and the stop light told me to wait, even though there were no cars coming, that is an example of practicing a habit,” says Gary. (Catch up on the entire story here.) In his story, Gary says there are several reasons why he didn’t cross the street when the light was red, despite having to wait at least 30 minutes for it to turn green. First, he didn’t want to model the wrong behavior, especially given he was speaking about safety at that very conference. Second, he knows about the power of developing habit. “Think about it this way: if someone is doing something a particular way, all the time, and it’s less risky, you don’t have to worry about so many other factors, because they are naturally doing it the safest way,” he says. “So wearing gloves doesn’t prevent an incident, but the habit of wearing gloves compensates whether we make a mistake like getting our hands into the grinder. That’s the whole idea of habit. Habit is what helps us avoid the pitfalls that come with complacency.” This discipline and attention to developing consistent habits is the same thing Gary works on with people across industries, and not just safety. He even works on habit strength with professional athletes. The insights, even used with pro athletes, is to focus on these areas:

Focus on doing things habitually the right way.

For athletes, that might be technique. For safety professionals, that means doing things the right way and upholding standards and protocols each and every time. Just like with professional athletes, you can become more aware of when you’re facing pressure or when you are more likely to “cut corners.” For his clients who are professional athletes, this might be conditions such as high-pressure, stressful situations where they tend to make errors or make mistakes, for example. For safety professionals, maybe it is pressure to perform a task or project quickly or maybe it’s something like fatigue or frustration.

Analyze your close calls or your “small” injuries.

It takes time and practice to improve your safety skills. When a mistake is made, analyze the errors and close calls to see what states were involved. Many people make the mistake of not doing this step. “And if it wasn’t a state of being, maybe it was a habit we need to work on. It takes practice but is very effective at controlling the frequency and severity of injury,” adds Gary.

Focus on what you can control: yourself.

From professional athletes to professionals working in safety, there is so much that is outside of your control. For professional athletes, that might be the strategies or tactics of opponents or the weather. But Gary says it’s about focusing on each and every moment you do control. “You have to control yourself first. If you control yourself, then what you’re going to do is you’re going to control the moment. When you control the moment, your performance is going to be the best that it can possibly be,” says Gary.

Observe and give feedback to others through an observation program.

This is another way to drastically cut down on complacency. “If you observe others in the ‘state to error pattern,’ you know something serious could happen,” explains Gary. “The best companies, safety-wise, encourage workers on the floor to perform safety observations on a peer to peer basis and also accompany the supervisor and safety director on their rounds. Those observed committing at-risk behaviors aren’t disciplined, but are part of a discussion on how to correct the observed at-risk behavior.” It’s not about auditing, it’s about looking to see gaps and signs of complacency in the system, and reducing those, while also reinforcing safe behaviors you see.

Start Using iReport to Reduce Complacency

Fight complacency with iReportSource, which allows you to proactively find, report, and fix hazards in the workplace. Automate your safety program, painlessly, today.  

Learn more about Higbee & Associates here. Learn more about SafeStart here. 

Source used throughout this blog post:


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