In Brief

  • True competency for OSH professionals includes knowing how and why employees do their jobs the way they do.

  • Dedicating time to learning employees' jobs will allow OSH professionals to create more realistic safety programs and gain greater employee buy-in to safety initiatives.

  • If a job is too risky for the OSH professional to perform or observe, do not expect other employees to do it.

Nearly all OSH professionals have attended an adult learning course and heard this basic principle: Adult learning is most effective when it is experiential (Knowles, 1984). In the author's experience, safety professionals tend to follow this axiom well for others, but forget to apply it to themselves. Case in point: Most readers can think of at least one peer who writes safety programs that apply to tasks s/he does not understand (e.g., writing a forklift safety program but never having driven a forklift).

Relying on safety professionals to provide technical guidance on items with which they have no experiential knowledge is problematic. How can a person provide proper technical guidance if s/he has never experienced the activity? Furthermore, how can safety professionals and managers realistically expect employees to follow guidance that they know was written by someone who has never performed the activity in question? Imagine sending an inexperienced teenager to a driving course taught by an individual who has vast safety expertise but has never driven a car. Would that teenager's parents have confidence in that instructor or would they prefer a driving course taught by someone who has no safety management training but is a long-term licensed driver with a good record?

Most people remember Chuck Yeager as a gifted test pilot and the first human to break the sound barrier. What most do not know is that Yeager began his military career as an enlisted mechanic. He was made a flying sergeant when the Army Air Corps needed more pilots for service during World War II. In his autobiography, Yeager (1986) recounts multiple instances where the knowledge he gained building, repairing and diagnosing mechanical problems with aircraft saved his life as a pilot in combat and when flying experimental aircraft.

Yeager's experiences can be used as an analogy to the knowledge one gains during a Gemba walk. By taking the time to understand a knowledge set outside of his immediate area of concern (piloting the aircraft), Yeager was able to apply a unique perspective to the challenge at hand (quickly diagnosing and dealing with an in-flight emergency) in a manner that produced the most favorable outcome. Had Yeager not understood the mechanics of his aircraft, he would not have had the skill set to diagnose problems and understand the aircraft's capabilities. In a similar way, by engaging in the practice of Gemba walks an OSH professional can gain knowledge outside her/his immediate area of concern to apply unique perspectives to problem solving when OSH challenges arise.

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