So much of what we do in safety takes its focus on workspace. We call this the physical or ‘primary’ dimension of safety. This is easy to administer and regulate because what is required is visible and accountable through checklists matched to regulations. Most safety walks and observations are physical (primary) activities. Walking around and observing what is physically out of place is relatively easy. Unfortunately, this seems to be the majority of what safety professionals do. Every time safety officers undertake observations they seem to concentrate on the same things they found last time. Without ownership, nothing changes.
Often safety walks take the form of the ‘nitpicky repetition cycle’. The ‘nitpicky repetition cycle’ often takes the form of nagging and threatening others about personal protective equipment, dress, trip hazards, dues dates, tags, tickets, barricades, traffic, exclusion zones etc. Whilst these things are important they are a small part of the safety equation. Unfortunately, people assume because something looks safe, that it is safe. Similarly, assumptions are made that if something looks unsafe then it is unsafe. Looks can be deceiving.
One of the first things I do in my Advanced Hazard Identification and PROACT training is help people expand their safety paradigm to think more in terms of workspace, headspace and groupspace. I have written previously about primary, secondary and tertiary hazards and risks. The idea of workspace, headspace and groupspace captures more simply the fundamentals of Psychosocial Safety.
Understanding, observing and influencing workspace, headspace and groupspace is foundational to Psychosocial Safety. We can go on as many safety walks and observations as we like but if we only engage with the primary/physical dimension of safety will never start the journey to the Total Safety Organisation.
How do we begin to practice a Psychosocial Safety approach to observations and conversations? We must understand and learn to engage with workspace, headspace and groupspace, and the interactions between all three dimensions. We must know how to question and engage and influence the physical (primary), psychological (secondary) and cultural (tertiary) dimensions of safety.
Engaging others in workspace, headspace and groupspace takes training and practice. You need to know what you are looking and listening for and how to extract knowledge in these dimensions through effective questioning. Unfortunately too many safety professionals think that the development of ownership in safety is spontaneously generated through telling, lecturing, correcting and policing. These work in the short term but they don’t motivate others to ownership and they certainly make no difference over the long term. This is why the ‘nitpicky repetition cycle’ is one of the greatest frustrations for safety professionals. I often get frustrated when I read and see safety consultants offering nothing more to clients than proficiency in the ‘nitpicky repetition cycle’.
There’s not much need to elaborate in this article about conversations and observations in workspace, we are already proficient in that. So let’s discuss in a bit more detail the engagement and focus of headspace and groupspace.
Engaging with headspace is undertaken best through open questions and generating dialogue. When we engage with headspace we are listening for: assumptions; micro-rules; heuristics; beliefs; rules of thumb; gut knowledge; values; biases; principles, language ‘anchors’, ‘double speak’, habits of mind; competing values, intuitions; emotional decisions; doubts, internal integration and psychological goals. We are looking for: symbols; artifacts; blind spots; omissions; habits and evidence of learning priority. When we hear and see these things we can then respond to them and influence belief and values change.
When we engage with groupspace we are listening for: ‘effects’; interaction beliefs; relationships; trust; power discourse; stereotypes, distractions; interruptions; dissonance; heroes and enemies; power politics; exclusive language; shared meanings; ‘rules of the game’; ‘risk quackery’; situated learning; cognitive load, organic alignments and external adaption. We are looking for: social validation; recognition patterns, stressors; punishment signs and attributions. When we hear and see these things we can then respond to them and influence safety culture change.
Knowing how to infiltrate these dimensions and knowing how they influence safety culture is beyond the scope of this article. To conduct observations and conversations in these dimensions with understanding is not something which comes naturally or automatically. Learning how to engage, listen and perceive these things takes learning and practice. Learning how to ‘prime’ and influence these dimensions is a journey many safety professionals are yet to commence. However, this is the journey we need to take if the idea of a Total Safety Organisation attracts us.