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Mind the Gap:
Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle in Safety

By Carl Potter

One of the biggest mysteries in hazardous work is why well-trained people do not follow their company’s safe work practices. After years of research, the answer is becoming clear. Consider the following statement: “The gap between knowing and not doing is much bigger than the gap between knowing and not knowing. “

The “knowing – doing” gap boils down to something quite basic. The gap between knowing and not knowing is easily overcome through training and education. It’s tough to overcome the gap when people know something, yet they don’t do it or apply it.

It’s not hard to see examples of the “knowing – doing” gap in the workplace.  Consider the group of oil company executives who couldn’t figure out why workers blame the company when injuries occur, or the group of leaders in the utility industry who are now supervising the people they worked alongside.  Unfortunately, the gap becomes all too real when investigating a workplace fatality in which the victim failed to follow basic safe work practices that could have easily prevented the incident.

If you’ve ever been to London and used the underground transit system, you’ve no doubt heard the recorded voice loudly proclaim, “mind the gap” to remind embarking and disembarking train passengers about the space between the platform and the train. It’s as if we need to have the voice to remind us to mind the gap between worker’s knowledge and their actual performance.

It’s essential that leaders recognize, and then do something about the gap. Think about your own workplace and answer the following questions:

1.   What evidence of a gap in worker knowledge and application exists? Often leaders don’t look for the gap and therefore don’t know that it exists.

2.   How are supervisors trained to deal with situations where workers aren’t accurately applying safe work practices? Remember that supervisors are often people who have come from the workforce and may not be trained in how to handle such situations.

3.   When is the last time your organization’s safe work practice training curriculum was reviewed for relevance and interest? Outdated and uninteresting training can create apathy toward learning and will lessen the opportunity for appropriate application of safe work practices.

As you consider your own workplace and find that you have room for improvement, the four guidelines provide some steps you can take.

1.   Involve a cross-section of employees in a review of your current safety rule documentation. Ask them what problems they know of with clarity or application of stated rules.

2.   Get a copy of your safety manual or accident prevention book and a yellow highlighter. Mark every instance of the words “shall” and “will”. These words, while similar, carry different weight. Shall means “without deviation” and the word “will” generally indicates a guideline. Can workers reasonably follow the rules that contain the word “shall”? Be sure that you ask the involved workers.

3.   Use a safety expert to review the OSHA rules that are applicable to your industry. Does your safety manual include all these rules and, more importantly, are your employees aware of the proper application of these rules and the safe work practices for your organization?

4.   Establish employee-management safety councils in your organization. Employee participants represent their peers and have access to management to discuss safety concerns. When management demonstrates their commitment to listen to and address issues promptly, such groups can be highly effective.

Do whatever it takes to ensure that everyone throughout your organization knows the applicable rules and how to apply them to their work so you can have a workplace where everyone can go home every day to their families without injury. It’s all about application. It’s just that simple. One of the most important jobs of a leader – whether a crew leader or a company president – is to guide people to apply appropriate knowledge. Take time to first consider if you’re applying what you know about safety, then look around. Ask yourself what you can to do help others apply what they know.

Read other articles and learn more about Carl Potter.

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