My family has been in the construction industry for 4 generations.  Because of that a fair amount of my work these days is with contractors, leading communication-safety training for field personnel, supervisors and owners/executives.

One of things I have learned is that there is more to safety than simply doing what the manufacturer recommends.  Whatever tool you are using, following the safety guidelines is not enough anymore. You also need to be a good communicator if you want to decrease distractions and increase safety.

This message was reinforced for me one day while I was waiting to deliver a safety training class in Minnesota.  One of the owners got up and said “Hey guys we had too many accidents last year.  Injuries happen when we are distracted.  Leave what is at home at home.   Stay focused on the job. Someone yelled at a worker and the guy got all pissed off because he got scolded… You have to put on your big boy pants.  If you yell at someone, apologize. Be mature about it.”

I cringed a bit when he said “big boy pants”, but I also liked his directness and how he linked safety, communication and maturity.  What exactly did he mean?  I think he meant at least three things:

1) We are less safe when we are distracted, 2) we tend to react when yelled at, and 3) apologizing contributes to safety.

  1. We are less safe when distracted.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that being distracted or “lost in thought,” is far and away the leading cause of highway related fatalities at 62%.  To put this in context they listed cell phone use – talking, listening, dialing, texting – as the second highest cause of driver distraction leading to a fatal accident, at 12%.

What is the antidote to distraction?  It is, in a phrase—focused attention.  Some call it mindfulness, others call it presence.  I often tell operators of demo saws that if they could just become Buddhist monks the injury rates would go down for their companies. That one always gets a good laugh. But I firmly believe it.

I have met thousands of operators who cut concrete and asphalt.  The ones who are most intriguing to me are the ones who saw the highways.  The guys who go out at in the middle of the night to run a 66 diesel saw for 10 hours.  Some seem like monks to me.  They get up at 2 am in the morning.  They work alone and in silence.  They don’t sleep much.  They fast sometimes.  They may pray often, especially when working 4’ from traffic going 75 mph.   They are able to safely do mundane work with focused attention.  I have never seen one of them appearing distracted.  They can’t afford it: their jobs are too dangerous.

  1. We tend to react when yelled at.

Who does not feel like they are in kindergarten, at least for a moment, when another person yells at them?  It is worse when it is your boss.  We may think they have overreacted, yet they are yelling for a reason.   So we react—our brains go into a fight, flight or freeze response.  It is physiological and automatic.   Extra blood gets sent to our arms and legs, our hearts beat faster, and we take in more oxygen.  It is basic survival.  But the very mechanisms of survival can compromise our safety in the present moment:  we do not think clearly or logically when we are in this state of mind and body. Our attention is not in the pre-frontal part of our brain where rational thought happens.

What is the solution?  First, make planning more important.  A clear plan, concisely communicated and followed, creates safety.   Second, manage reactivity.  Plans cannot always be perfectly followed, and changes happen all the time.  And some changes trigger emotional reactions.  Consider hiring people with the brain-power control of a Buddhist monk.  It has been shown, in a study in 2008, that seasoned monks can modulate the part of the brain that creates a fight, flight or freeze response.  Third, find out why someone is raising their voice and make sure workers discover and take responsibility for their part in the situation.  Train the ones raising their voice to apologize properly.   Train the ones on the receiving end of the feedback to find the truth in what is being said to them.

  1. Apologizing—taking responsibility for your behavior—contributes to safety.

If someone overreacts, their job is to apologize, or at least check in with the other person, when the time is right.   The person on the receiving end of the strong feedback needs to find out what they did and own it.  This not always easy, but it is possible and will lead to good outcomes.

Communication and safety are related. This we know thanks to many studies in the airline industry (and the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which has a great chapter on how airplane crashes are related to communication).  You may have never thought of it, but a true apology can create safety.  An apology suggests that someone is taking responsibility for their actions.  Responsibility creates accountability, which is like vitamin C for the safety-immune-system.   The better the communication is between workers—the more skillfully they can identify and isolate potential hazards—the safer everyone is on the job.

How do I know this?   I watch the way people treat each other at the places where I train and I track the reported injuries in the many organizations where I have worked.  Places where communication is poor, or tends to be negative, have more distractions and stories of injuries.  Companies where people communicate positively, where people apologize when necessary and take responsibility for their behavior, have fewer cases of people being hurt by improper use of tools and poor choices.

We are safer when our attention is focused, when we modulate our reactivity and when we are able to take full responsibility for our behavior—even with those who yell at us, whether or not we are Buddhist monks.