Safety and Driving and Safety Leadership

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By Laura Gantt, OHST, Senior Consultant, Safety Compliance Management (SCM)
Article submitted on behalf of the CWEA Safety Committee

While the title of this article suggests it is about driving, it really isn’t. It is about safety. And it is not about driving safety either, even though initially, the context may suggest that. This is about a much bigger picture, Safety Leadership. As safety professionals and practitioners, we have to look at things differently, through the lens of leadership. Leaders must be good coaches, engaging others in their work to learn how work is actually performed, which often may be really different than what is planned or thought to be happening. People generally don’t come to work wanting to get hurt, to hurt someone else, or to do a bad job. Leaders teach employees to do what they do because those are the things that make sense to them at the time they are doing them.

We can learn much from the transportation industry, specifically the automotive side. As safety practitioners and leaders, we sometimes don’t have the opportunity to learn from others who also interface with considerable risk on a regular basis and who have learned a few simple steps that we, as safety practitioners, should implement in our safety programs. The steps are as follows:

  1. Make it easy for your employees to do the right thing.
  2. Make it hard for your employees to do the wrong thing.
  3. Make it so when they fail, your employees fail safely and don’t get seriously injured or die as a result of their being human.

The automobile industry figured it out but the safety industry has yet to learn some very important truths. People are human and are subject to making mistakes. They are wired to be distracted; will often be inattentive and not pay attention to things, even when the stakes are high; and have lives outside of work. One could argue that the automobile industry does a better job at safety than those of us in the safety industry. The auto industry knows that people will be people and as people, they will make mistakes. In the workplace we assume that people, our employees, are going to always do the right things even in complex situations for which the plans don’t work, the right tools are not always available, and their life is causing them to lose focus. As an aside, we do regular preventative maintenance (PM) on almost every other element of our safety systems. Do we do anything related to a PM with our employees or do we just require and assume that they will never be distracted, never be tired, and never make mistakes.

While the lessons from the auto industry are way longer than we can discuss, here are some things that are done to make your cars safer for you. Perhaps we in the safety world should take some notes and look at ways we can implement these concepts in our workplace.

  1. The automobile industry knows that as drivers, you will be less than perfect. They know that drivers can be tired, distracted by any number of things, and simply not pay attention to driving even though it is a high-risk activity that can kill you and a large number of others.
    • What happens when you stray out of your lane? Do you always crash? No, there are rumble strips and things in the roadway that divert your attention back to the task at hand. They make it easy for the driver to do the right thing and stay in their lane.
  1. When you drive too far out of your lane, and hit something, that something is protective of you as a whole. They build resilience into the safety system.
    • If you do go out of your lane, the items along the roadways are designed to help dissipate the energy that is present. This is done by using break-away poles and signs, by having guardrail systems that keep you in the roadway, and through the use of shock absorbing bumpers around guardrail systems that are filled with sand or water.
  2. There is a range of safety engineering built into the vehicle itself to help reduce the severity of the second and third impacts that are the consequence of an automobile accident.
    • What most people believe about the basic seatbelt is overly simplistic. Seatbelt technology has evolved to the point where the role of the seatbelt is not to keep you inside the car, it is to position you in the perfect spot to where all of the other safety systems will work in an optimum way. When you crash in newer cars, the belt pulls you back into the seat where the crumple zones, airbags, and other safety elements will have their optimum effect in keeping you alive with minimum injuries.
    • As another aside, something that many of us will appreciate is the fact that newer vehicles don’t have the same door handle design as cars in the 70s. If you recall those cars, the doors were opened from the outside by pushing a button and then pulling the door handle to open the door. What do you think happened when a car rolled onto its side? Do you suppose the ground pushed the button and allowed the door to open as the car rolled over?

Our point in all of this is that we as safety practitioners who work in the field of occupational safety have to think differently than we have about human beings and how likely they are to make mistakes. None of us are perfect and if we want to keep our people safe, we can’t do what we have always done and expect that things are going to be better or even the same. Our workplaces are becoming more complex. There are more challenges facing many employees today than in previous times. Our infrastructure is not getting newer and is often aging faster as production pressures push the envelope. Our employees may be receiving less effective training as the need for efficiency pushes the increased use of computer-based-training (CBT). And this does not take into account that employees today often have a lot of outside work complication that we may not even be aware of. If we want to keep our employees safe from the risks that we expose them to, we have to think and act differently. The field of safety is evolving to embrace that we need to implement systems and programs that do what the auto industry does.

  1. Make it easy for your employees to do the right thing.
  2. Make it hard for your employees to do the wrong thing.
  3. Make it so when they fail, they fail safely and don’t get seriously injured or die as a result of their simply being human and do what human beings often do.