The key to preventing more work-related injuries is to get more people involved in programs and processes designed to improve occupational health and safety. This is not profound; it's obvious. Yet in so many situations, safety is managed in such a way that involvement is actually inhibited rather than enhanced. For example, common safety slogans, safety incentive programs, and safety metrics actually stifle interpersonal trust and the kinds of proactive conversations and learning needed to prevent injury. In fact, the language we use to talk about safety, with words like "accident investigation," "loss control," and "root cause," hinders proactive participation.
It doesn't take major complicated change to turn current situations around and get more employee involvement in occupational health and safety. But it does take a paradigm shift. We need to perceive the problem of workplace injuries differently, and intervene differently with regard to the people aspects of safety. Two of the three "E" words for industrial safety are still appropriate and critically important - Engineering and Education. However, to get more participation, we need to replace the third "E" word of traditional safety - Enforcement - with another - Empowerment.
This paper offers a number of basic strategies relevant to cultivating a work force that feels empowered with regard to safety improvement and does something about it on a regular basis. In other words, this paper suggests ways to get more people actively caring for the health and safety of themselves and others. The principles and techniques presented are not based on common sense but on research-tested theory and practical applications. Let's start with the most basic strategy, one that defines culture and therefore determines whether all my other suggestions can be accepted, implemented, and sustained.
Words shape our feelings, expectancies, attitudes and behavior (Hayakawa, 1978). How you talk about something influences how others feel about it, especially yourself. In other words, our verbal behavior affects our attitudes and beliefs, and these in turn determine more behavior. Question: Does your safety-related language increase or decrease employee involvement?
"Accident investigation" is a common phrase in industrial safety and health. What does it mean? Or more to the point, what does it imply? Safety pros use this phrase to define one of their basic job requirements, and they attend professional development workshops with this label to improve their skills. But, really, what's your assignment when investigating an accident? Let's look more closely at this language.
The word "accident" implies "a chance occurrence" outside your immediate control. When a child has an "accident" in his pants, we presume he was not in control. He couldn't help it.
And what about the word "investigation?" Doesn't this term imply a hunt for some one thing or person to blame for a particular incident, as in "criminal investigation"? How can we promote fact-finding over fault-finding with a term like "investigation" defining our job assignment?