In January of 1962, Tales to Astonish #27, a comic book, featured a scientist who had created a special chemical. This chemical, when put in contact with an object, would shrink it! When the scientist tried the concoction on himself, he shrunk to the size of an ant! In time this scientist became the Astonishing Ant-Man, a super hero and a founding member of the team known as the Avengers. He worked on his chemicals and eventually gained the ability to grow very large. He then became known as Giant-Man. It’s quite a transition from ant to giant, and the scientist, Henry Pym, was able to do much in both roles. That can happen in the workplace as well when considering safety. If the correct formula is used, one can transition from playing a tiny role in safety to becoming a giant.
One of the most important ways to grow in safety and to make a difference is to lead by example. I was once asked by a safety professional why there were so many issues in her department, and my answer was eye-opening to her. She walked around her labs in Capri pants and mesh sneakers- things that should never be worn in the lab environment. I explained how important it is to lead by example. Employees watch the behaviors of others in the department every day, and they pay special attention to leaders. If the safety leader is not following good practices, it becomes clear quickly that the importance of safety shrinks. The leaders become small, figuratively, like ants, and the overall culture suffers. This safety professional began asking questions, began learning and leading by example. Over time, she became a giant in safety and made a powerful difference in her departments.
Another way to help improve safety in the department is to create other giants or champions. I once worked with a pathologist who would enter the gross lab every morning to say hello to the staff- but he would be drinking his coffee while doing so. When I performed my first safety audit of the department, I found cups, eating utensils and food in many drawers and cabinets. I explained to the pathologist that he created that unsafe culture. Over time, this pathologist became a safety champion. He owned his behavior, he changed it, and he became someone who now models safe behaviors which positively affects the safety culture. Finding and creating champions takes time, but it is a valuable endeavor that can change behaviors throughout your department.
Before I became a lab safety professional, I was a laboratory manager for many years. In that role I had employees working in the department with no PPE, there were plants all over the place, and the staff food refrigerator was in the middle of the department. I’ll admit it was not a very auspicious beginning, I was definitely an ant in the arena of safety. Things changed over time, however, and I have spent the past 13 years as a champion for employee safety in multiple locations, and I have helped others become safety giants as well. It can be done- without a special chemical that helps you grow. What will make you or your department grow in safety? What will motivate you to protect the employees where you work? Becoming a champion for safety will enable you to become a member of the super team that truly protects people!