Academic programs in safety are composed of a number of critical courses that help students become knowledgeable, problem-solving professionals. Typical programs of study include foundational courses in math and science, and core safety courses in areas such as accident prevention, legislation and standards, accident investigation, workers' compensation, systems safety, ergonomics, and fire science. Students are easily able to recognize the importance of these topics to their success as a safety professional. Some may complain that chemistry, statistics and systems safety are tedious and unnecessary, but the bottom line is they get it, they just don't like it.

However, I teach one class that some students just don't get. The course is titled Psychology and Philosophy of Safety and it focuses on the more intangible concepts of leadership, culture, communication and organizational behavior. In an effort to make the course title more descriptive, we recently changed the name to Safety Leadership. Since I began teaching this course, I have had to find ways to make the material more meaningful for students, who often do not immediately recognize the relevance of the topics in terms of their future careers. A couple of years ago a student came by my office at the end of summer with some questions about the upcoming semester. The conversation was enlightening, and went something like this:

  • Student: "I was looking at my class schedule and I'm in your Psychology of Safety class next semester. I looked at the course in the catalog and just wanted to know if you could tell me about the course."

  • Me: "Sure. Is there something specific you'd like to know?" (Anticipating a question about how many papers would be required, image my surprise to hear what comes next.)

  • Student: "Well, I just don't see the point. It doesn't relate to safety and it seems like a waste of time as far as I can tell."

  • Me: (I managed to keep a straight face, since that was the first time someone insulted my class before they even took it.) "This isn't the traditional safety class in the fact that we don't look at federal or state rules and regulations, but we look at the culture of organizations and the impact of leadership, how to manage change, developing productive teams, employee motivation, and a number of other related issues."

  • Student: "What does culture have to do with anything?"

  • Me: "It impacts everything. The culture of an organization dictates how things get done, or if they get done at all. You will see it in employee attitudes about safety and other issues, quality of work, and in so many more places."

  • Student: "Well, I don't see how it relates to safety. I don't know what the point is or why we have to take it."

  • Me: (At this point, it's a losing battle. So I changed tactics just a bit.) "OK. The bottom line is, it's a required course and you need it to graduate.

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