Safety Culture Blog

For those about to Rock: We Salute Caring

Mowing the lawn can be a real chore.  It is certainly not something I look forward to.  It’s also a chore that can be quite hazardous.  Lawn mower blades can spin up to 200 miles per hour.  Contact with these blades cause 20,000 injuries per year including 600 incidents of amputation and 75 deaths…simply mowing their lawn.

I was working with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) nuclear plant near Chattanooga doing an assessment of their safety culture.  What I heard from them is a claim I’ve heard many times at companies with a strong positive safety culture… The quote goes something like this: “Drive down the streets here and you’ll know who works here!  You’ll see us mowing the lawn with full PPE, steel toed boots all the way up to safety glasses!”  They take it home!

It made me reflect on my career as a lawn mower.  When I moved into my first house I was in my 20s, invincible and stupid.  I’d mow my lawn with no gloves or glasses.  My short pants were complimented with my lack of a shirt (you know I had to have the bronze summer tan).  Of course, I tended to be lazy and not mow frequent enough so the grass was typically high when I went to do the chore.  I quickly found that bagging my clippings resulted in a lot more work pulling and dumping the bag every run through the yard.  Therefore, I gave up baggin the lawn clippings.  As a result, rocks and sticks would fly out randomly.

As a safety geek I look back in embarrassment and a lot of thankfulness that I wasn’t seriously injured.  Mowing the lawn nowadays I look more like those employees I interview.  I got steel-toed boots, long pants and shirt, leather gloves, safety glasses, the whole getup.  I maintain the blades and bag the debris. 

What Changed my Behavior?

It got me wondering… what made me change from the risk-prone mower of my 20s to the safer mower I’ve been today?  Many folks would answer, “Because you got hurt!”  They reason that the painful consequence of an injury would change my behavior.  Indeed, this happened.  I was mowing next to a grove of trees in my back yard one afternoon and hit a rock that shot out hitting a tree, and ricocheted back slicing my exposed leg!

Did I go back inside to my family and admit that I hurt myself?  “Daddy got an owie!”  That would not work out will at all.  I had been insisting that my kids wear all kinds of PPE when they play, one of my favorite speeches to give is about my son refusing to wear elbow knee pads while skateboarding.  Plus I’d never hear the end of it from my loving wife who loves to point out the contradiction when I take risks like this.

So I snuck inside, cleaned up the wound and put on long pants to finish up the lawn.  Did I keep wearing long pants and use the clippings bag thereafter?  For a time or two…yes, but then back to shorts and no bagging.  Funny but even an injury didn’t change my behavior.

Injuries are so unlikely to happen that they are not a powerful enough consequence to change behavior.  In behavioral science we call this the “Avoidance Paradox” because we typically never come in contact with the negative reinforcement from an injury.  Therefore, it does not really motivate us.  My friend Cloyd Hyten and I wrote a scholarly article on this topic if your in need of bedtime reading – contact me for a copy.

Instead, the probable and immediate consequences of safe mowing are wearing heavy sweaty clothing and stopping all the time to clear out the clippings bag.  Doing the safe behavior is more uncomfortable, typically more inconvenient, and takes more time. These consequences punish safe behavior, in our backyard mowing as well as in many of our job tasks.   Quite simply, the positive consequences of being safe need to outweigh those negative consequences.  In many cases, they don’t add up and risks are taken. 

So, if getting hurt didn’t work, what made me change my behavior from taking risks in my 20s (and 30s to be honest) to the safety precautions I use now?  A second answer would be “You’re a dad and need to model the safe behaviors you want to see in your children”.  Good answer.  My boyz have a lot of safety requirements!  I already told you about the challenges getting my oldest son to wear knee and elbow pads as he skateboarded.

I took my youngest to see AC/DC in concert when he was young and, of course, we both wore ear plugs (although I tore mine in half to hear Angus’ solo better).  Afterwards, he decided he wanted to be a rock n’ roll drummer.  Concerned about a lifetime of pounding decibles and the tinnitus that could result – just ask Pete Townsend of the WHO – I decided to start him out right!  So, I went to far as to buy my youngest son full ear protection similar to the earmuffs air service crews wear on runways!

How then could I require all these safe behaviors in my kids then turn around and model risk in my own behaviors?  My guess is that having kids is the turning point in all our lives where we change from risk-accepting youthful ignorance to safety-seeking adult cautiousness.

But even having kids didn’t seal the deal.  Sure, I’d be in full PPE when they were around the house.  But to be truthful I would take the same old risks when the kids were not around.  The positive consequences of modeling safe behavior only exists when the novices are around.

What REALLY changed my behavior?   

         for good?   

               even when no one else is watching?

Well, it happened in my 30s when I was out mowing on nice Saturday afternoon.  The kids were in the garage and I was fully outfitted with PPE…  or so I thought.  I was about halfway done with the lawn when my youngest, then around 8 years old, came running out to me waving.  I put out my hand for him to stop and turned off the mower.  What happened next changed my life.  I still get choked up telling it.

He ran up…”Dad, dad…. You forgot these.” And he handed me his earmuffs I bought for his drumming.   I was not wearing hearing protection. 

Surely, I had knowledge of possible hazards and the injuries that could occur.  Certainly, I knew that I was modeling behaviors that could influence others.  But these consequences were not strong enough to maintain my safety behavior. 

The biggest single thing that influences my safety choices to this very day was that act of caring offered by my son to me on that day. 

It wasn’t some top-down rule or procedure.  It wasn’t some training seminar or incentive program.  Instead it was Forrest taking his time to protect me (or help me protect myself).  He did that because he cares for me.

And you know what?  Now I will never let him down by taking unnecessary risks, even when he is not around.  I know he cares so I do not want him to find out his dad hurt himself by taking risks. 

I also firmly believe that he did this for me because I was looking out for him too.  This is how a strong safety culture works.  A safety culture is not just one’s own personal safety behaviors.  Nor is it the result of safety management systems or training.  It’s not even the impact of leadership behaviors that emphasize that safety is a top priority.

Instead, a safety culture is a place where people talk to each other about safety.  And the most profoundly impactful version of this is when individuals offer acts of caring to each other. 

We show we care through suggesting better protective equipment (like my son), offering safer alternatives to get the work done, volunteering their time to work on safety committees, by watching out for each other and giving feedback in a respectful and caring way.  Peer-to-peer caring is the most powerful consequence there is in the workplace (and its also the cheapest).

So it gets me down when some safety professionals claim that Behavioral Safety “doesn’t work”.  When I look into BBS programs that seemed to have had limited effectiveness I find the typical trappings of an observation card and data analysis systems.  But after digging a bit I find that the observations are being done by supervisors or by a “chosen few”.  What is missing is the opportunity for peers to take a couple minutes to demonstrate their care for their fellow workers. 

It’s a tricky thing to grow, this safety culture.  It’s more than just an engineered process.  Luckily we have our families to learn from.