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By likening safety adoption to that of a virus spreading, or fidget spinner popularity, we get the idea that it must grow organically, not artificially, to be sustainable.

The Tipping Point for Safety

A tipping point is that moment in time where something goes from small to big in popularity or relevance.  This is sometimes referred to as “achieving critical mass,” or in the case of a virus, it’s the point when it spreads from a local outbreak to an epidemic.  Think of a craze like Pokémon Go, fidget spinners, or the now super popular Spandex stretch pants for women.  At some point these ideas started out with a single user and have now grow to millions.  So how do some ideas or concepts catch on like wildfire while others die on the vine?

Safety in an organization is no different than a fidget spinner from the standpoint of tipping it toward acceptance and success.  What we are really asking is how do we take safety from a “have to” condition with limited participation to a “want to” condition with full participation?

The “have to” condition is often driven by regulations, client requirements, or the adoption of best practices to lower risk. Safety adoption shouldn’t be about beating the workforce into submission but rather about each worker’s self-realization that it is in his or her best interest and that adoption returns benefits on many different levels.

To get to this realization, the message must be delivered by someone of influence.  To start the tipping process, a champion is needed to advocate a culture change, a new policy, or even a new procedure and help it spread like a virus.  The champion doesn’t necessarily need to be a person of authority but rather a person who is respected.  It also helps if the champion can promote safety adoption with a positive attitude, not with an “enforcer” mentality.

As an authorized OSHA Outreach instructor for construction, I take pride in making my training sessions engaging and fun.  I achieve fun through game-based learning.  Go back just 10 years and the idea that adult learning could be fun was rarely talked about, and even less frequently attempted.  About that same time, I connected with a company that was developing computer software for schools to help kids learn.  The software allowed teachers to create educational content and deliver it through computer games including classic favorites like Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Kids could collaborate, work in teams, compete, and learn from each other, all while having fun.  Most adults are big kids at heart, so it should work for safety education too, right?  I took the software and created construction safety-related content and used it in my OSHA training.  Envision a group of 30 iron workers, carpenters, and electricians teaming up to compete against each other through game-based learning.  It works, and I know it does because with some repeat trainees the first thing they ask me is, “Are we going to play those games again?”

I like to consider myself a pioneer and a champion with this type of learning experience.  I think I’ve started a trend toward the tipping point as many of my fellow trainers, based on my shared success, now use games during their instruction with equal success.

Since safety success is the sum of the whole workforce, each worker needs to conclude that they have responsibilities to each other and can affect the outcome.  Building toward the tipping point requires achieving success one worker at a time.  For the worker the realization that “safety is for me” can involve any number of the following situations.

  • A major safety incident, possibly a fatality, shakes the workforce and causes them to look inward at their level of effort and what is really at stake. Reinforce the need to look out for each other, don’t short-cut processes, and act where needed.
  • A greater understanding of the return on the investment including a more sustainable company which means greater job security. Direct and indirect costs of injuries can threaten a company to failure.
  • Overcoming the dismissal of new means and methods of applying safety practices. Like game-based learning give new ideas a chance.
  • Communications from senior leaders describing success and a commitment to drive safety goals to completion. Sincere consistent messaging through all levels of an organization to ensure we are all rowing the boat together in the same direction.
  • Initiatives that are well conceived by and for the people stand a much better chance of getting to the tipping point. Half-baked or flavor-of-the-month safety initiatives don’t survive for long.

By likening safety adoption to that of a virus spreading, or fidget spinner popularity, we get the idea that it must grow organically, not artificially, to be sustainable.  Tipping may require some help from outside resources to analyze programs and develop a roadmap to success.  Whatever the means, safety professionals must sometimes think of themselves as inventors and figure out how best to get their “product” to market and “sell it” to get to the tipping point.

Dan Hannan, safety professionalAbout the Author: Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.

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