Healthy is the new Safety

While giving a presentation last week as part of National Men’s Health Week, it occurred to me there were parallels between safety culture in the workplace and the strategies of healthful living. I wonder if my men’s health education work would be more ‘sticky’ if I pursued this line of thought by helping men to adopt the safety cultures they are immersed in at work as a tool for managing their physical and mental health more effectively.

For example, the concept of ‘procedural drift’, the phenomenon of  what happens when nothing happens. Detailed industrial safety protocols provide guidance to avoid injury and death, and are usually followed to the letter when commencing a new task or process.  However, with time the workers may start to take some shortcuts in the interest of perceived efficiency (or laziness), safe in the knowledge that no injury or death has befallen them. They start to drift from the procedures as written.  This can be minimised by regular safety audits and training. But humans being human, and the laws of entropy, suggest the drift will start again.

Here is an example from agriculture. A primary producer I know told me when he started working with a particular chemical he followed all the recommended safety procedures when transferring the chemical from drum to dispenser.  He gloved, masked, used a well ventilated space and had a hose handy for any spillage. With time, however, the mask, gloves and hose were gradually dispensed with as he never had any problems… until. But that is another story.

Lifting technique is another example.  Following my workshops on manual handling, it is apparent the workers think and act differently when lifting. For a while. Then they tend to drift back to their previous habits because, well, nothing felt any different with the new procedures.  Interestingly, those workers with a history of back pain or injury tended to continue the new approach longer than those who had never experienced difficulty.

So back to men’s health behaviours. Whether it is dental checkups, nutritional advice, activity guidance, relaxation or mindfulness training, any fresh information or behaviours may well gradually morph back into previous habits because there is no observable short term benefit. Think about gym memberships – the reason for enrolling persists long beyond the regular attendances because no short benefit is seen.

Health outcomes are not short term benefits. Just as health failures (heart disease, cancer, kidney failure, lung disease) are long term outcomes of poor decision making; health improvement is a long term outcome of better decision making. Procedural drift makes it very difficult to experience the long term benefits of behaviour change because of the short cuts and failure to follow the program.

Regular audits and training in the form of check ups with your health professional, information or activities to reinforce the message and the benefits and maybe even utilising a health coach to keep an eye on you and hold you accountable (the personal equivalent of an Occupational Health & Safety Officer) will improve your chances of success.

All the best,

Craig Allingham
Sports Physio and Health Educator

PS: Just as nagging from your boss won’t improve your attitude toward safety procedures, nor will nagging from your life partner improve your attitude toward better health decisions and behaviour. Just saying, that’s all.

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