Bill goes over to his friend Tom’s house to watch the game. When he walks in he notices Tom has a bandage on each of his ears. Puzzled, he asks him what happened.
Bill: How exactly did you manage to hurt both your ears?
Tom: Well, I was ironing my shirt when the phone rang; without thinking I lifted the iron to my ear thinking I was answering the phone.
Bill: Well that explains one bandage, what about the other?
Tom: They called me back!
The story, while funny, is unfortunately more accurate than we’d like to believe. We do many things without thinking, they are simply gut reactions. Often those reactions work in our favor…and sometimes they don’t. When we’re placed in stressful situations our fight-or-flight instincts kick in - it’s how we’re hard-wired. The key is to realize our instincts are not always right and are often not the best way to handle a stressful situation. The more prudent action is to take a step back and truly evaluate everything in its entirety.
But how does a person know how they’ll react if they’ve never been in a similar situation? The truth is that, without understanding their personality traits, they wouldn’t. And some of our personality traits can create “blind spots” for us from a safety perspective.
Understanding your safety blind spots is critical to reducing incidents. By knowing your tendencies under pressure, you can compensate for them and thus reduce your exposure to risk. It’s the same principle that professional sports teams use when scouting their opponents.
Just look at how prevalent the infield shift has become in baseball during the age of sabermetrics. Managers look for tendencies and try to exploit them, while players of the opposing team try to break tendencies in order to gain advantage. The problem is that if the game is tight and the pressure is high, players tend to do what is comfortable and familiar to them, which plays right into the hands of the opposing team.
If a batter hit a ball to the right side of the infield >80% of the time it only makes sense to shift an additional infielder to the right side. If there’s no one on base, the batter may be more relaxed and take advantage of the shift. However, with the game tied in late innings and a runner in scoring position the pressure is high and the batter is much more likely to fall back into their tendencies by hitting the ball to the right side. If the batter wishes to break his tendency, he needs to establish a new habit. By working on pulling the ball to the left side, over time he will be able to break his tendency and force the opposing team to play a conventional infield alignment, thereby neutralizing the advantage they held with the shift.
The same holds true for the average worker on the shop floor. If you are someone who is naturally comfortable with risk and impulsive, on a typical day when things are calm and stress-free you may take the time to get the right type of ladder before you work at heights. Or you may inspect your forklift and fill out the required log form before you start driving it. But what about when you’re running way behind schedule, you’re on your own, and you know you have to get an important order out the door? How do you respond under stress? That’s the key. For an employee that is naturally lower on SafetyDNA traits, such as Caution or Following Rules, in these types of instances he or she is more likely to revert to their natural tendencies, much like the baseball player we described above. Under high stress situations, our “true colors” are often revealed, especially with respect to safety behavior.
Knowing how you are psychologically “hard-wired” for safety allows you to understand your blind spots and begin breaking those tendencies that can put you at risk of injury. Understanding the specific blind spots in your own SafetyDNA helps you perform tasks more safely and recognize risks more easily. If you can understand your reaction under stress as it relates to the four key areas of personal safety (Control, Awareness, Following Rules and Caution), you can establish new habits to compensate for these, thereby making you a safer person in high risk situations.