What's "safe?" Where can "safe" be found? Are you thinking about it? It’s not as easy as it sounds is it. Think too globally and you start contemplating terrorism and environmental catastrophes. Think too locally and it’s about street crime and burglars in your neighborhood. But interestingly, once you’ve had that thought, you’re probably thinking, "Do I need to fit better locks?"
This is a perfectly logical response to a perceived threat. Nearly a century ago, A.H. Maslow described a hierarchy of human needs in which he recognized that feeling safe was the second most fundamental requirement for humans, beaten only by our physiological needs for food, air and water. Even without being told this, we know it - just ask anyone who’s ever been woken in the dead of night by an unfamiliar creak of a floorboard. Instantly wide-awake, your mind urgently races to calculate all possible scenarios. And then, as you pad around your home in your slippers at 3 a.m. desperately hoping not to bump into anyone, you contemplate how you could be better prepared for a home-invasion scenario.
Problem No.1: We Rely on Fight or Flight
And right there is problem No.1 about safety: We tend to react to perceived threats. That fight-or-flight mechanism, that rush of adrenaline and laser-sharp thinking about the problem, doesn’t begin until the bad thing is already happening. Why is that? Why do we wait until the dead-of-night house patrol to contemplate our home defense plan?
We live and work in environments in which people care about our safety. Manufacturers are required to comply with legally binding safety guidance. Our toasters come with instructions that take the time to tell us not to use the device in the bath. Every plastic bag warns us of its potential suffocation hazard. And, apparently, my peanut butter may contain nuts. Translate this to the workplace and you can probably throw a company health and safety policy into the mix.
There’s a policy? Hey, I’m covered.
Or are you? In recent years, a number of reports have found that the safer cars are designed to be, the worse people tend to drive. The argument runs that when other people are paid to consider our safety, the less we have to think about it. And do you know what one of the leading causes of workplace injury in the U.S. is? Same level falls. People walking along a flat, level floor and falling over.
Problem No.2: We Dismiss Hazards, Especially the Most Common Ones
Let’s be honest, a same-level fall doesn’t even sound like a threat does it? It’s just walking, right? And there’s problem No.2: We tend to dismiss many hazards because they don't seem hazardous enough. Because it’s not a Lara Croft style gauntlet of swinging blades that has to be negotiated to get to the coffee machine we assume it doesn’t pose a risk to our safety. But you know what? Same-level falls cost empoloyers $11.2 billion, according to the 2018 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. That's a risk - both to employers and to the workers who are involved in those incidents. There don’t appear to be any figures for swinging blade injuries ...
But seriously - $11.2 billion. What slice of that do you want? It's an important question to ask because you’re paying it. Whether you are the employer or the employee, you’re doing the paying in the form of lost earnings, personal injury and hospital bills. As an individual, workplace hazards - however mundane - pose a threat to your earning potential. As an employer, you could end up stuck without a key staff member during your busiest period - not to mention costly injury claims.
So ... how’s that adrenaline-based, reactionary risk response working out for you now? And what can we do to tune into workplace hazards before they become a problem?
It's a complicated question. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) produces guidance for people who are required to lift things. Their solution to that risk? "Eliminate unnecessary lifts." OK, but what about the risk people obviously face when walking on a level floor? We can't stop people from walking, so now what? Well, NIOSH recommends education and training.
Training to walk? Really? Maybe not ... but how about training not to walk while reading reports? How about explaining that texting and walking can impact your ability to pay your mortgage? Because, as we said at the start, if we think there’s a credible threat, we’re pre-conditioned to respond. That's why it's so important to at least encourage that third option - fight, flight or at least put the cellphone away.
If you're a manager, your adrenaline should already be pumping. If you aren't thinking about the most basic safety issues, your professional safety is at risk, and the threat is your share of $11.2 billion - and that's just for falls. Let’s not wait for the unexpected creak in the darkness to work out our coping strategies.