Even the most vexing problems have solutions. Sure, it seems like we're all busy, often trying to do too much with too little. As one Corporate Safety Director reflected, "I work a forty hour week – by Wednesday." Another, when hearing that several professionals are now doing the work of two, exclaimed, "Two? That's all?"
Yet insistently high expectations of improvement still come hand-in-glove with high pace and seemingly not enough support. The understandable default for many leaders is to ramp up, go faster, and attempt to carry too many items in their arms, where, often inevitably, one or more drop away.
Partly the issue is that most of us are submerged in a sea of serial thinking – first approaching one safety issue at a time, then another, usually as quickly as we can. Certainly, addressing one problem at a time is preferable to becoming overwhelmed or sinking by the weight of multiple pressing demands; however, the risk of this approach is getting stuck on trying to "fix" just one issue, while others, sometimes even more pressing, run rampant. Or of perpetually playing catch-up, like almost desperately attempting to plug a hole in the dike while others break open.
The flipside can also be limiting – trying to take in every issue, then make change-the-culture plans for transforming the entire company all at once, usually by large leaps in outlook. Such biggest picture thinking is helpful in long-range visioning, but often doesn't help address current pressing issues. For more on visioning, see my article, "Keensighted Leadership for Cultural Change: Developing Vertical and Horizontal Vision" in the January 2013 issue of Professional Safety.
There's a third, more strategic approach that balances the above two: Where possible, synchronize safety approaches so that one set of methods and actions "solves" two or more related problems. Think of the difference between trying to lug two bulky packages as opposed to tying them together; the latter is usually much easier to handle (perhaps this is why pouches, packs and straps were invented?)
Strategic thinking often means putting attention in one area that generates simultaneous results. (For a take on how this applies to ergonomics, see my article, ""Leading a Concentric Ergonomic Culture" in November 2012's Professional Safety.)
So in this time-limited work world, look to craft a combined approach that harvests multiple fruits. Not any two problems arbitrarily - e.g. it makes little sense to put office safety together with preventing falls from heights - but there are many safety issues where significant overlap does exist.
Case in point: simultaneously addressing contributing factors to two common and vexing safety problems: hand/arm and soft-tissue injuries (the latter usually to the back and other areas.) Many companies report these injuries coincidentally occur to employees working with a range of tools, power equipment, on machines, lifting-pushing-pulling and performing other physical tasks that require a mix of fine control and applying force.
Granted, only a percentage of hand injuries are strains or sprains (these are typically cumulative and usually affect the dominant side, as this is more often worked.) Other hand injuries involve cuts, abrasions, punctures, contusions/bruises, smashes, crushes, fractures, vibration-related problems, carpal tunnel syndrome (in essence, short-circuiting of the median nerve from wearing of insulating myelin sheathe), contact injuries (burns, chemicals, cold.) These can result from a range of activities that are often acute in nature, where a single incident can erupt into a serious problem.
In contrast, soft-tissue injuries generally affect areas of the body where force is likely to concentrate over time during the course of many exposures (lower back, shoulders, neck, knees, ankles, etc.) They tend to be "straw that broke the camel's back"-type injuries where a relatively small done-it-a-thousand-times-before exposure tips over the edge towards a muscle, tendon or ligament injury.
While there certainly are differences between any two types of injuries, there are plenty of similarities between these. First off, aging can put each worker at greater risk for sustaining both these injuries. Sarcopenia, age-related muscle loss, can lead to lessening strength, which in turn increases the likelihood of cumulative wear-down injuries (lifting the same weight at age 55 may be more difficult and dangerous than for that same worker at 25.) This affects gripping strength as well. And sarcopenia doesn't affect our muscular system "equally." As people age, they tend to lose quick-twitch muscles (tasked with quickening reaction time) at a greater rate than slow-twitch muscles (responsible for sustaining strength over time.) This can slow reactions so that what was a close call at age 30 might become a hand injury at 50.
Second, many workers frequently use both their hands and bodies daily. All safety strategies are based on the principle of reducing risk exposures. The fewer and more potentially benign the exposures, the less likelihood of sustaining a larger number of or more serious injuries. Both hand-arm and soft-tissue injuries are prevalent in many companies because of number of exposures. Think how many times certain workers move their fingers and hands during the day. Consider how many times an employee lifts one- or two-handed, carries, pushes, pulls, holds, wrenches/torques, climbs and maneuvers loads, even those that are relatively light (and, as indicated earlier, with soft-tissue injuries someone can pay painful prices for a backlog of previous exposures.)