Potato Heads Make Great Safety Advisors
A potato head is able to switch body parts and take on a different persona. Each character a potato head takes on is both genuine and different; to some degree all people are potato heads. One of the lessons we learn from social psychology is that social arrangements shape decision making and judgments. So, depending on the context we can transform from parent to: worker, partner, counsellor, teacher, accountant and lawyer all in one day. Each role requires a different face, each role requires a variety of skills. This is why the training of safety people should be so much more than just knowledge of the Act, Regulation and Standards. This is why the foundational capabilities of a safety person should be in people, relationship and communication skills. Yet, in most WHS training gives these skills low priority.
A safety advisor called me the other day (let’s call him Pete) when a worker (let’s call him Ted) had a fall on a building site and was taken to hospital. Pete’ head was flooded with the many things he had to do, the event happened at the end of a hectic day. Whilst Ted was on the way to hospital Pete followed and Pete rang me as a trusted colleague for support. Unfortunately safety advisors are often isolated in their work and often because of their role, they have limited people on site they can trust. One of the problems the safety industry has is this constant flooding of potato heads with obligations, trying to turn them into spud heads. Safety people do not have ‘unbounded rationality’ and the excesses of demands placed upon them by the Regulator often leads to ‘flooding’ and being ‘bamboozled’ with all they have to do. Having worked in a number of significant crises events, I know how difficult it is to be calm and collected under dis-stress. Especially when others push in on you for hasty decisions. When safety people are alone like Pete, it was wise to quickly call a reflective friend for support.
Pete went with Ted to the hospital, Pete was at the hospital late last night with an ill family member. Ted’s family had been notified and Pete quickly took on a counselling role for the wife and child of Ted. Pete had also called the Site Manager of the job (who was interstate) and communicated the nature of the event and the Manager took on some of the ancillary work required at the job through delegation. Pete communicated with doctors and nursing staff as well as a number phone calls from friends and union members who had witnessed the event.
Pete has extensive safety training but has learned to be a counsellor and communicator over many years through the school of hard knocks. Pete has no training in crisis management nor formal training in counselling but wishes he had. It is a strange thing that we flood safety people with all this knowledge of the Act Regulations and Standards and none of it helps when the crisis comes.
Pete is lucky and naturally gifted in communication and just knows how to be empathetic, he knows how to listen, he knows how to suspend agenda, he knows how to reflect, advise and mirror. Pete is a good safety potato head, he didn’t worry about some things and focused on Ted and the family. Bureaucracy can always wait in a crisis. Pete knows that saying spud head things in a time of crisis is unhelpful and that making commitments or promises in a crisis can lead to bigger problems later. When a potato head is immersed in a crisis, time stands still for many things and, the things that are important should stand out.
A potato head knows that in a crisis many things that we normally think are important can wait. A potato head knows that in a crisis we don’t debate about money and budgets, when a person’s life is at risk only a spud head would talk about such things. A potato head knows that saying pithy things in a crisis is spud head language. A potato head knows that projecting into the future or attributing things to the past is spud head thinking. Hindsight talk is spud head talk and the potato head knows that language primes the thinking and actions of others. Only a spud head commences an incident investigation in their head whilst they are talking to an injured worker. Only a spud head talks about zero incidents and zero harm when someone is hurt. A potato head knows to suspend bias and judgment as much as possible and ‘attend’ to people. A potato head knows how to be ‘all things to all people’ and not speak nonsense.