Do You Have Safety With-it-ness?

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By Matt Forck

In the December 15, 2008, New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell published an interesting article on education. The article focused on how teachers are evaluated. The article, which is entitled "Most Likely to Succeed, How Do We Hire When We Can't Tell Who's Right for the Job?," introduces a concept called with-it-ness and asserts that today's most gifted teachers have it!

Gladwell writes: "Another educational researcher, Jacob Kounin, once did an analysis of 'desist' events, in which a teacher has to stop some kind of misbehavior." In one instance, "Mary leans toward the table to her right and whispers to Jane. Both she and Jane giggle. The teacher says, 'Mary and Jane, stop that!' " That's a desist event. But how a teacher desists-the tone of voice, the attitudes, the choice of words-appears to make no difference at all in maintaining an orderly classroom. How can that be? Kounin went back over the videotape and noticed that 45 seconds before Mary whispered to Jane, Lucy and John had started whispering. Then Robert had noticed and joined in, making Jane giggle, whereupon Jane said something to John. Then Mary whispered to Jane. It was a contagious chain of misbehavior, and what was significant was not how a teacher stopped the deviancy at the end of the chain, but whether she was able to stop the chain before it started. Kounin called that ability "with-it-ness."

Gladwell and researcher Jacob Kounin define with-it-ness as the ability to be proactive-to stop an event before it happens. And, they assert that with-it-ness, along with feedback, is the key trait to teacher effectiveness. Safety with-it-ness, or our ability to be proactive or to stop an event before it happens, is also the measure of safety effectiveness. So, the simple question is, do you have safety with-it-ness? Here are three questions you should ask every day to have a high level of safety with-it-ness.

First, what on this job can change my life forever? Having worked in the electric industry for nearly 20 years, I have had the misfortune to analyze dozens of electrical contacts and other serious incidents. What is amazing about many of these tragic events is that on most of these jobs, the energy source was the only hazard on the job that would change the workers life forever. And, it was the energy source that went unguarded or that the worker didn't take the appropriate action to protect himself against. Before starting any job, ask a simple question-what on this job can change my life? You may find an energy source, trench, fall exposure, vehicle traffic, etc. Usually, however, there are only one to three things on each job that are 'major' life changing hazards. Find them. Take proactive steps to control them-work with safety with-it-ness.

Second, am I in a transition? Several years ago the quest to summit Mount Everest hit 1,000 official requests. When reviewing those attempts, statistics show 200 of the 1,000 climbers perished. The interesting thing for me is that of those 200 who died, 150, or 75 percent, died climbing down the mountain. One could argue that the focus, energy and planning were dedicated to reaching the summit and climbers lost sight in transition, underestimating the focus and planning that phase of the climb demands.

Our jobs are often similar with transition situations, often leading to incidents and injuries. Our equivalent of descending the mountain might be when a construction job is finished and the only task is cleaning up, or backfilling or climbing down off a roof or elevation. Transition is simply the last task before break or lunch. It might be the day before a long vacation. Having safety with-it-ness means we actively look for transition situations knowing there is added danger in these times. If you don't believe me, think about those 150 climbers. Jeff Evans, a man who has successfully climbed and descended Mount Everest, says it this way: "Reaching the summit is optional-going home isn't."

And third, what's new? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration published the following on an OSHA facts sheet: "Young workers, ages 14-24, are at risk of workplace injury because of their inexperience at work and their physical, cognitive, and emotional developmental characteristics. They often hesitate to ask questions and may fail to recognize workplace dangers. OSHA has made young workers a priority within the agency and is committed to identifying ways to improve young worker safety and health." In other words, they are new, and because they are new, there is added risk of incident and injury.

But being new doesn't just apply to young workers. Having an added risk of injury or incident applies to new tools, new equipment, a more seasoned worker in a new job, etc. Safety with-it-ness means you and your organization understand the added risk of 'new' and take pro-active steps to review and train. This small amount of time making 'new' more comfortable, and getting your workers more comfortable with 'new' tools and equipment can save more time later-and can save lives.

In short, good teachers are able to stop events before they occur. And, for us to safely make it through each day, we need to employ that same skill set-or, as I like to say, we need safety with-it-ness!


Matt Forck, CSP and JLW, is a keynote speaker and writer specializing in the field of worker safety. Matt serves clients across the United States and more than 10 countries. He lives in Columbia, Mo. with his wife and two children. Eliminate shortcuts today with Bucket List. Learn more at www.safestrat.com.

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