Safety Has Not Been Asked to Prom

Green is sexy. It’s in vogue. It gets splashed on billboards and endorsed by celebrities. Safety on the other hand? Not so much. Over the past few years, the environmental movement has picked up steam and seeped into the national consciousness. Heck, even school kids can tell you what it means to be green—and they’ll probably even throw in that it’s cool, to boot. Occupational safety has remained a niche topic, the domain of industrial hygienists, regulators, and technical experts. The only school kids discussing it are working on advanced degrees. Let’s face it: Jack Johnson hasn’t written any songs about worker safety and health.

Green and safety are both related to behavior changes that take place at national, organizational, and personal levels. They share an impetus for action. Categorically, the motivations that move nations, organizations, and people to behave in environmentally friendly ways are the same as those that encourage safe work practices.

Until recently, environmental responsibility and occupational safety have lived parallel lives. Both were disregarded, then championed and crusaded for. In 1970, both causes were given dispensation as United States government entities via the Occupational Safety and Health Act (which brought about OSHA and NIOSH) and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the past decade, workplace safety has obscurely toiled toward improved outcomes, whereas green has bolted into the limelight. So why is Green rolling with A-listers while Safety is at home eating ice cream directly from the carton?

Getting on board
The drivers behind the green movement noted that informational campaigns designed to raise awareness don’t change behavior. So they began pairing environmental awareness with promotions focused on goal-setting and commitment. Green has gained momentum by tackling the easiest issues first, even if those issues don’t significantly impact the most pressing problems. Recycling doesn’t stop climate change, but it is something that people can actually do, that gets them on board, that helps the movement gain traction. It enables people to say, “I’m a part of this. I’m in control.”

The one-off
Recycling is a daily event. Green promotes these types of repeated behaviors, but more important, it advocates single, one-time, efficiency actions. Buying a car that gets better mileage doesn’t require a sustained effort the way committing to use mass transit does. Green would tell you, “Get a water-saving showerhead. Then you have a sustained impact even if you refuse to sacrifice one minute of your luxurious shower.” In the safety realm, the same idea applies. A worker wouldn’t need a respirator or hearing protection if the threats had been designed out of the process in the first place. The trick is to convince decision makers that paying more today will be worth it tomorrow.

Staying positive
Positive emotional experiences influence behavior. Unfortunately safety tends to be viewed as a Debbie Downer. If you met Safety at a party, your conversation might go something like this:

You: “Whoa. Didn’t see you there, Safety. So, you know, how’s it going?”

Safety: “No one’s suffered a debilitating injury for a while, so I’ve got that going for me.” [Insert sad trombone].

Safety messages tend to focus on not getting hurt or avoiding fines. A more positive take might highlight improved health or a happier, more productive workforce. Green has managed to capitalize on the positive. For example, businesses boast—and justifiably so—that they are environmentally friendly and clean. Who doesn’t like clean?

The sustainability twofer
One of the most important places that the green movement has made headway is in the workplace.

Forward-looking companies have embraced two key insights:

Investments in environmentally friendly technologies, practices, and policies are financially wise, especially over the long-term.

A green company is more appealing to consumers, who now demand less packaging, cleaner manufacturing, and more responsible use of natural resources.
These two insights hold true for safety as well. In the business world, workplace safety and environmental responsibility are becoming barriers to entry, necessary components of lasting success. Investments in safe equipment and sustainable practices will provide future returns. Some of the world’s most successful companies have recognized the correlation and have merged their environmental control and safety compliance efforts under the single umbrella of sustainability.

Because of the close relationship between safe practices and environmental stewardship—their overlap in promotion and intervention—there’s no reason that safety should be left to wallflower. As many innovative organizations have proved, Safety and Green are perfect for a double date.

—Thomas Cunningham, Ph.D, and Garrett Burnett, MS, MBA

Dr. Cunningham is a behavioral scientist in the NIOSH Education and Information Division.

Mr. Burnett is a health communications fellow in the NIOSH Education and Information Division.

For more on this topic, see:
Cunningham, T. R., Galloway-Williams, N., & Geller, E. S. (2010). Protecting the planet and its people: How do interventions to promote environmental sustainability and occupational safety and health overlap? Journal of Safety Research , 41 (5), 407-416.
Posted 6/13/2011 at 1:35 pm

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