“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Will Durant
In 2006, The Association for Psychological Science published a journal article titled Habits – A Repeat Performance. The article declared that habits make up approximately 45% of our everyday behaviors. They are learned and developed through repetition and practice. For example, we take a shower, brush our teeth, make our coffee, etc. Habits are actions we are so used to completing, we no longer need to dedicate conscious thought to their completion. What if safety were a habit, and we were so practiced in safety focused actions that we carried them throughout all aspects of our lives without deliberate thought? If we devote the time, we can learn to develop safety habits that will translate to all expanses of our lives.
Dictionary.com defines culture as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” Just as with cultures of the world, safety ideas and philosophies differ based on your beliefs and how those beliefs guide your actions. The Peltzman Effect is the hypothesized tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, offsetting some, or all, of the benefit of the regulation.
For instance, there is a theory that mandatory seatbelts tend to reduce the number of driver deaths by making it easier to survive an accident. As a result, a portion of the population adopts seatbelt use as a habit. The Peltzman Effect, however, considers that mandatory seatbelts may tend to increase the number of driver deaths by encouraging reckless behavior, therefore introducing two separate philosophies on the same safety concept. What we can take from this theory, whether we agree with it or not, is that having a strong safety culture in a work environment is critical to the welfare of each individual working on site. But what happens when we extend this ideology of working safely to other areas of our lives, such as at home, and not just in the work place?
Let’s explore the concept of routines. We all have them. For instance, every morning when I wake up, I make the bed, take my dog outside, eat breakfast, and then get ready for work – always in that order. If I were to make it a practice every morning to walk back to my bathroom to confirm my curling iron is unplugged, safety would be a part of my routine as well. There are actions like this one that, if included in our everyday routines, make us more safety-conscious individuals.
While at work, we put on our PPE first thing because it’s required and there are consequences if we don’t. Once we get off the clock, we might not always wear a seat belt in the car. At work, we use ladders (in compliance with OSHA standards) for out of reach objects and tasks, but at home we may climb on chairs or countertops without thinking twice about the risk. Since habits are established via repetition, their initial construction requires thought and effort. If you can find a way to remind yourself to work safely at home by putting your seatbelt on or making sure you have an easy to access ladder, you will be reinforcing safe work practices. The effort to make more safety-conscious decisions pays off when safety becomes routine and good habits are established.
Awareness and Action
Sometimes safety lapses are obvious, like a stovetop that’s been left on, and sometimes they are less apparent, like dead batteries in a smoke detector. Maybe you forgot your PPE at work, or perhaps equipment isn’t being properly maintained. Bad habits are established the same way we establish good ones; they are learned and developed through repetition and routine. When you say to yourself “I’ll do machine maintenance tomorrow” or “I’ll change those batteries when I get home tonight” and then repeat the same thing the following day and so on, suddenly it’s next week and it has slipped your mind. We fall into habits of excuses and inaction. However, if we make an effort to be aware of potential safety hazards and know where to look for them, we can be more proactive in preventing incidents before they have an opportunity to occur.
Consistent Action, Consistent Results
In 2011, Torch Magazine reported that Americans are eleven times safer at work than they are at home. On average, there are 53,200 off-the-job deaths compared to 4,933 on-the-job deaths each year. In terms of disabling injuries, 9.4 million people suffer off-the-job disabling injuries, while 3.7 million experience the same on the job. At home, we behave in ways we wouldn’t typically consider at work, where there are repercussions for our actions. At home, we stand on chairs, leave fires unattended, or leave candles burning. At home, we might wrap a fraying extension cord with electrical tape rather than replacing the cord altogether. Why are we more likely to Band-Aid a problem at home and repair one at work? Laws, regulations, and concern for others may play a role. Are we safer because we are required to be? No matter the reason, take your work home. If we understand hazards, adopt a safety mindset, and are proactive, we can influence safe outcomes.
Phil McGraw said, “Awareness without action is worthless.” It isn’t enough to be aware of safety concerns, we must act to correct them as well. You wouldn’t discover a flat tire and then continue to drive on it, just like you shouldn’t turn a blind eye to safety worries, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Be proactive and take initiative. Even if it’s not your job, let someone else know about the issue. If we all assume someone else is taking care of it, the job never gets done and the matter will never be corrected. Safety awareness can start with a single individual. All you have to do is speak up.