The following is adapted from Rethinking Hand Safety
You take your eyes off the saw for a moment, and suddenly you lose a finger.
Your mind wanders to your plans for the weekend, and you spill a harsh chemical on your leg.
You zone out while repeating the same task for the hundredth time, and your hand gets caught in the machine.
All it takes for disaster to strike is a moment of inattention.
Nothing is more important to safety than paying attention, but nothing is more difficult to train for or control. We are constantly bombarded by internal and external distractions, from the sensory (loud radios, the bright new hunting cap a coworker decided to wear, a strong smell) to the emotional (the fight we had with a spouse, worries about job security, anger about a reprimand).
The solution is mindfulness. By teaching mindfulness, you can help your workers stay in the present moment, pay attention, and prevent accidents from occurring.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is the New Age term for paying attention and we’ve written about its benefits before.
Why would a new term be needed? Because mindfulness is a much broader concept. To be safe, you need to do more than pay attention to the task at hand; you need to be mindful of the overall situation around you. You need to be mindful of your own state of health, the time of day, and the safety cues in your immediate environment.
Mindfulness implies that a worker is trying to stay in the present tense. Soldiers, emergency responders, and others who must make split-second decisions call it situational awareness.
Whatever you call it, it means the mind is not reliving the past or anticipating the future. It means the mind is undistracted by emotional narratives and actively shutting out sensory distractions. It’s right “here.”
What are other people doing in your immediate area? What is the state of cleanliness of the workspace? What hidden danger is represented by the fact that you did have an argument with your spouse, that you are worried about your job security? Do you need to slow down your work because your focus is waning as it gets closer to lunch hour (studies have shown that in some settings, hand injuries spike between 10-11 a.m.) or because you are on the night shift?
A MINDFULNESS EXERCISE
Mindfulness often makes sense to people in theory, but they struggle with putting it into practice. How can workers be taught to prepare their minds for safe work? Would your workers even be open to a “touchy-feely” program like this?
Here’s an exercise which you can modify for your particular circumstances. This kind of training might be more acceptable to your workers if it takes place in a training environment like a classroom, but it will be most effective at the worksite. Maybe do prep in the classroom, then repeat the exercise at the worksite? Figure out what works for your people, as every group is different.
First, before beginning their shift, ask workers to take a calming breath and try to relax their minds from worry and distractions—bringing themselves into the present moment. Ask them to close their eyes and focus for a moment simply on their breathing.
Beyond their breathing, workers can then expand their attention to become aware of their environment: the traffic zooming by their worksite, the forklifts in motion, the other workers, the way the tools are laid out, the way their gloves feel, the time of day.
Next, ask workers to imagine doing their task in the best and safest manner, actually running through all the steps ahead of time in their minds. Tell them that athletes like tennis players and pole vaulters and swimmers do this every single time before they compete. Tell the workers they are athletes too. As they do this, their minds will run through the dangers, automatically—not in fear, but in a calm, controlled way.
Then, if possible, have workers physically do the safe motions, over and over, to develop “muscle memory.”
All along, tell them that the goal is to maintain a clear mind which is calm and aware and not lulled into dangerous inattention. It can help to go back to bringing attention to their breath throughout the workday. This centers the mind, clears it, and makes it aware and open.
Now, ask workers to schedule for themselves tiny mental breaks, perhaps less than fifteen seconds every now and then, in which they repeat steps one through three, very briefly, for a mental reset before continuing work. This is especially important before beginning a new task, but workers should monitor their own attention from time to time and pull back for a “performance break.” “Am I paying attention? Am I rushing this? Do I have all the tools and protective gear I need? Is someone near me putting me in danger?”
The exercise could end there, but as a final, bit more advanced step, ask workers to consider creating a little trigger that reminds them to act in a safe manner. Their trigger might be putting on their gloves, going back to the active face of the mining pit, turning on their equipment, calling out “ready” to a coworker. This trigger is a signal to their mind that it’s time to focus.
MAKE MINDFULNESS WORK FOR YOU
Marissa Afton, an industrial safety consultant with the Potential Project, sometimes does mindfulness training, but she doesn’t necessarily like to use the word “mindfulness.” Instead, she talks about “situational awareness” or uses other words that resonate with workers.
“People who work in corporate environments take well to the idea of sitting and breathing as a mind-training practice. It fits into the natural workday,” she says. “But for people always on the move, just sitting still can be really uncomfortable—physically uncomfortable. I ask them, ‘What does it mean to move with sharp focus and also a sense of relaxation? … How are we continually sharpening our focus and opening our awareness to both seen and unseen risks? How do we go to the mental gym?’”
Mindfulness can be one of the greatest deterrents to workplace accidents. Yet, just as is the case with gloves, helmets, or steel-toed boots, mindfulness only works if people actually use it. Frame mindfulness in a way that makes sense to your workers, and reap the rewards of better attention.
For more advice on mindfulness and work safety, you can find Rethinking Hand Safety on Amazon.