Contributor: Jean Ndana, Regional Environment Health Safety Manager, Michigan Seamless Tubes (MST)
The first move toward transforming a safety culture or achieving desired safety outcomes is developing an inward-examining mindset that it is up to the task. You cannot be physically ready to lead change and make progress if you are not mentally ready first.
Like all double-edged swords, your mindset can be your closest ally or your worst enemy. As your enemy, it can blind you with patterns that search for negatives or roadblocks, feed you with fears, self-doubt, and insecurity, forcing you to hold on to what has worked in the past but cannot work this time.
As your ally, your mindset can create the right perspective that will empower and inspire you to look at the challenges that are staring you in the face from a new angle. It is not the event or the situation that counts; it is how we view it.
Past successful strategies, methods, or techniques cannot be followed like a recipe to be used in every situation, even if those situations look the same on the surface. Consider past successful strategies, methods, and techniques as not only fertilizer for your brain, but also as inspiration to find an appropriate and creative response when facing each new situation.
This mindset should also be anchored in gratitude and challenge past successful methods, techniques, and routines to make sure they are still relevant and have not outlived their usefulness.
Has this ever happened to you? After several grueling, multi-layered interviews, you land a job as the new OHS manager for a manufacturing plant. You’re happy, and rightly so. Congratulations!
So you now mentally move towards envisioning your initial approach. Based on what you learned throughout the hiring process, you know that the organization is facing some tough occupational health and safety-related challenges. After a thorough and comprehensive gap analysis to identify what is driving poor safety performance and defining a new vision for safety, it is time to craft the strategic safety improvement plan that you’ll use as a road map. Hence the question: Where should you start? What this means is: What’s the first action you should take in your strategic improvement plan?
But it’s critical for your future success to not wander down the “wrong roads”. That is, think again:
• if you think that you need to start by looking for a new safety program, or new safety rules.
• if you think you need to create new draconian safety rules or to start enforcing existing ones with a procrustean approach.
• if you think you need to start by developing a near-miss reporting, a behavior-based program, or launching an incentive program.
In any organizational setting, as in almost any human activity, leadership, like progress starts from within. So, your mindset is the starting point. The first move toward transforming a safety culture or achieving desired safety outcomes is developing an inward-examining mindset that it is up to the task. You cannot be physically ready to lead change and make progress if you are not mentally ready first. Author Sylvester McNutt III said it best when he declared, “Everything in life starts with your mindset first and your actions second. Your actions follow your thoughts, beliefs, and ideas. To make a shift, to free your energy: start with getting your mind right and then, take action”. Think of your strategic safety improvement plan as a process-based series of actions aimed at your desired safety outcome. If you think of those actions as a series of arrows, before directing these arrows externally, you first have to accurately aim them from within.
When the author joined the health and safety department of his former employer, he knew the company was facing difficult safety challenges but did not recognize their magnitude. To say that the employer was besieged with serious and deep trouble is an understatement. Within days of the author’s arrival at the manufacturing plant and attaining more knowledge of its operations, the signs of trouble were too great and too many to miss.
The 350-person manufacturing plant specialized in motor vehicle components. The round-the-clock plant operated at an anemic 49 percent efficiency (corporate management expected a minimum of 85 percent), had a total case incidence rate (TCIR) of 12.6 (3.5 points higher than the industry average), high worker turnover, high workers’ compensation costs, and a strained relationship with Michigan OSHA (MIOSHA). Several years of ineffective safety management had fostered a culture of mistrust and disrespect that was so deeply rooted in the plant’s DNA that it was pathological. Honest mistakes by workers had historically been viewed as crimes; performance reviews focused on productivity and did not value safety-related actions, and a lack of consistency existed between statements and actions by management.
The poor culture wasn’t just about safety, although safety seemed to be a focus of worker vitriol. Hourly workers voiced persistent criticism of virtually every aspect of the plant. No matter what plant management did, the leadership group could not shake the perception that they were indifferent to employees’ safety and welfare. In addition, several OSHA citations originating from employee complaints led to several MIOSHA visits and citations.
These persistent OSH-related problems were detrimental to productivity, quality, and employee morale. The CEO recognized the need for a culture change and figuratively sounded the panic alarm. And, in an attempt to reverse the trends above, the author was hired to transform the safety program.
To make headway towards this, during his first 2 years on the job, the author developed and implemented initiatives to turn things around, and the company began making progress toward achieving safety excellence, as defined in the following paragraphs. The company worked these initiatives into all phases of manufacturing and saw positive effects on efficiency, quality, housekeeping, and morale, as well as the bottom line.
The overall performance incrementally improved. In fact, two years after the implementation of the new safety strategy, the company’s safety performance jumped from the fourth quartile of its industry into the first quartile. The facility’s OSHA incidence rate dropped dramatically to 3.2, half of the then industry average. In 2 years, the company reduced its injury rate by 75%. Workers’ compensation costs dropped from $1.5 million to $300,000, an 80% reduction. The previously strained relationship with MIOSHA became a cooperative one with more openness, respect, and trust. Management and employees had a better understanding of each other’s viewpoints, and workers began showing initiative instead of silently following orders. They grew more comfortable engaging their minds before their hands.
What are some of the transportable lessons here? This relates to a critical question challenging many in our field: How can an OSH professional help make such a dramatic turnaround in a unionized manufacturing plant whose safety performance nearly landed it on OSHA’s severe violator’s list? Several leadership tools, techniques, and tactics were developed and used by the author to reverse the negative trends at this facility. This article presents the first of them, the one that made everything else fall into place: Developing and leveraging “An Up To The Task Mindset,” a mindset that suits the challenges at hand and works as an ally, not an enemy.
What is a mindset?
The author was unable to find a common definition of “mindset.” Some define it as an inclination and set of beliefs, some as thoughts or attitudes, and others as a set of cognitive procedures. German professor of psychology, Peter Max Gollwitzer, defined mindset as, “the sum total of the activated cognitive procedures” (Gollwitzer, 2011, p. 528). In their book “Teaching the Entrepreneurial Mindset Across the University: An Integrative Approach,” authors Lisa Bosman and Stephanie Fernhaber defined mindset as, “[a] mental attitude or an inclination” (2021, p. 4). In “Getting Results the Agile Way: A Personal Results System for Work and Life,” Meier, J. D., & Kropp, M. posited that, “A mindset is a mental attitude. It shapes our actions and our thoughts” (2010, p. 179). Meanwhile, Lisa Auster-Gussman and Alexander J. Rothman said, “A consistent pattern of thoughts about a specific topic can become a mindset, which represents an established set of beliefs that shape how people think and reason about this topic.” (Auster-Gussman & Rothman, 2018). To put it another way, a mindset is a way of thinking, a mental inclination or disposition, or a frame of mind. Your mindset is a set of beliefs and thoughts that shape how you make sense of the world and yourself. It influences how you think, feel, and behave in any given situation.
There are several suggested steps in developing an “Up To The Task” Mindset:
- Gap Analysis
To determine the underlying causes of these challenges, the plant’s history was put under a microscope and minutely studied. A true understanding of a culture can only come from understanding the history and circumstances under which the culture formed. All the facets of the safety program, employees’ practices, and tribal beliefs were closely examined with a critical and unbiased eye. The assessment included walkthroughs, observations, document reviews, and interviews with labor and management, followed by focus group discussions, to identify and explore factors shaping attitudes and behaviors.
- Safety Vision: Desired Future State
For any organization undergoing a major change in safety, a vision of the desired future state is of the utmost importance. You cannot define an organization’s strategic safety goals or start any strategic planning if you cannot envision where the company wants to be. You cannot map out directions if you do not have a destination in sight. Imagine asking your favorite navigation app to give you directions without stating your desired destination. And, as Roman stoic philosopher Seneca so brilliantly put it, “To the person who does not know where he wants to go, there’s no favorable wind.”
Crafting a company-wide safety vision should be a group effort with several stakeholders, like production managers, union representatives, safety committees, the Maintenance Department, and others, that is completed in a participatory way. After multiple brainstorming sessions and some wordsmithing and written iterations the collaborative effort led to the following desired future state:
Through caring, coaching, collaboration, teaching, training, accountability and continuous improvement, within 5 years, we will create a workplace that’s uncluttered and organized, with visual controls, signs and postings in which every employee, every day feels A.C.H.I.E V.E.R.S (Appreciated; Cared for; Heard; Included; Engaged; Valued; Empowered; Respected; Safe).
After developing an understanding of the plant’s current state of safety and identifying gaps between the “as is” and the desired future state, the next logical step was to use the results of the assessment to develop a suitable road map to use as a guide, a model to turn the situation around. Stated differently, it was used to craft an aggressive strategic safety improvement and action plan that aligned with the plant’s unique conditions, core values, and guiding principles. Its implementation would redefine and set in motion long-term safety success.
- Mindset realignment and recalibration
The first questions the author considered were, “Where should I start? What should be the first step in the strategic improvement and action plan?” As soon as the author started jotting down some ideas, he found himself mentally going back to a Dr. Martin Luther King speech that he was introduced to in junior high school. The speech, which was delivered to an assembly of junior high school students on October 26, 1967, is popularly known by the title, “WHAT’S YOUR LIFE’S BLUEPRINT?” In his speech, Dr. King first explained that a blueprint serves as a guide for erecting a building, and like a building, life cannot be well built without a strong blueprint.
The message the author takes from Dr. King is that improving life starts with a healthy, positive mental attitude or mindset. Success, like progress, starts from within before it manifests itself outwardly. Occupational health and safety are no different. Thomas Jefferson stated the need to begin with an inward focus this way: “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; Nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”
To create a high-functioning safety culture, actions such as adding more safety rules, enforcing vigorously existing rules, searching for a new safety program or policy, or purchasing a new piece of equipment, were not the right starting point. Instead, the circumstances demanded a completely new mode of operation. The number and magnitude of the challenges required a certain dose of creativity, situational readiness, and an ability to find coherence in many moving parts. The author realized he could not simply rely on the same game plan that had worked for him in the past, because conditions in this plant did not support the implementation of those remedies. The situation required a multifaceted mindset that views previous typical safety practices as hypotheses to be tested and adopting a starting point that would inspire stakeholders at all levels to give the safety strategy purpose and meaning. The approach would reassure employees that the plant’s poor past safety performance did not dictate its future or define the employees. The status quo was challenged as a condition to be faced, dealt with, turned around, and learned from.
The situation required a multifaceted mindset that views previous typical safety practices as hypotheses to be tested and adopting a starting point that would inspire stakeholders at all levels to give the safety strategy purpose and meaning. The approach would reassure employees that the plant’s poor past safety performance did not dictate its future or define the employees. The status quo was challenged as a condition to be faced, dealt with, turned around, and learned from.
The situation required engaging in a kind of mental jujitsu: embracing a challenging situation, flipping it on its head, turning it around, and dissecting and interpreting it in a new light to find new, refreshing ways to think and act. The internal language of safety had to become more positive and inclusive to create a sense of energy and group togetherness in employee achievements, as well as to convince employees to reexamine their beliefs, adopt a mindset of safety as an integral part of operations, and ingrain safety into every activity so that it cannot be ignored.
As Dyer (n.d.) says, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” The author realized that the way we perceive and talk about problems determines how we approach them, as well as the tools and tactics we use to solve them. We can adopt a perspective and mindset that allows us to see things more clearly in a way that empowers and inspires us.
To feel energized instead of overwhelmed, the author adopted a new mindset grounded in personal humility. The author recognized that no matter how competent he may be or how hard he worked, he could not make a large-scale change alone; he needed help from others. The author respected others’ intelligence and insights and was eager to connect and build strong workplace alliances and relationships. He also was comfortable exposing his own vulnerability, admitting that he did not always know an answer or have a solution. He worked cooperatively with others and solicited their views before making decisions. He quickly admitted when he was wrong. When an issue was identified with his ideas, approaches, or proposed solutions, he did not let his ego get in the way and push back. Instead, he would say, “You’re right, thank you for pointing out that flaw. I missed that perspective. Now that I am aware, I will try to improve my approach. What suggestions do you have in this regard?” For example, the author nearly routed a new emergency exit directly into a severe hazard area but was corrected in front of a large design group by a maintenance technician. Nietzsche (1889) said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” This is also true for ideas. The author solicited challenges to his ideas because the more they were challenged, the stronger and better they became. At the end of each day, the author put his day up for review. He self-reflected and chronicled what went well, especially during interactions with shop floor employees, and what he could have handled differently.
Change Your Attitude
Another facet of the new mental attitude is summed up in this quote from Maya Angelou (2014): “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” There was nothing the author could do to change the plant’s history of poor performance in safety. But following this advice, the author changed his outlook. The past was not to be viewed as a burden to carry, but rather as a teacher to learn from. The author dissected the past and asked what valuable lessons could be learned from it.
Norman Vincent Peale (n.d.) is credited with the quote, “Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution. If you don’t have any problems, you don’t get any seeds.” Instead of facing existing challenges with fear, the author started seeing them as opportunities to learn, improve and grow as a person. The issues that led to poor safety were freshly mined diamonds. To the naked eye, they are ugly, but when cut and polished they are seeds of solutions. The author learned to extract the good out of the challenges. Much like a diamond cutter takes a raw, unpolished diamond and turns it into something beautiful, the author learned to extract the good out of the challenges staring him in the face.
For example, employees’ complaints to MIOSHA were viewed as opportunities for quick wins in safety as well as proof that workers were concerned about safety. This was a good thing. It is better if workers express their concerns (even if expressed in anger or unproductively at first) rather than be indifferent. Employee complaints to MIOSHA were viewed as an indication of employees’ desire and willingness to report system failures or problem opportunities.
These complaints not only revealed the absence of an internal method for employees to report safety concerns, but they also identified which employees were potential champions of safety. As it turned out, the most active safety proponents were previously among the most disgruntled employees. MIOSHA inspectors were no longer seen as adversaries but rather as partners in the building of a safer workplace. Each time a MIOSHA showed up at the plant following a complaint that was filed, at the end of their inspection, the author did not hesitate to ask them what things they found positive about the plant, or their ideas and suggestions for how some tough safety issues could be fixed. A MIOSHA inspector connected the author with another safety professional who was of great help in fixing some of the safety issues. To this day, the author is still in contact with that peer as a friend and safety accountability partner.
Employees’ complaints to MIOSHA inspired the author to create a kind of “ internal MIOSHA”. How? An internal reporting phone line that can be used by hourly employees to file a confidential health and safety complaint. The number for the phone line, which had previously only been used to report unethical behavior or conduct, was posted throughout the plant. The line was managed at the corporate headquarters by the office of the Vice President of Ethics and Enterprise Assurance. The “internal MIOSHA” line acted as a layer of control above the plan’s leadership. While employees could still call the MIOSHA line anytime they wanted, they were encouraged to report hazardous conditions, situations, behaviors or other safety concerns to plant management first. If an employee did not receive a response from plant management within an acceptable time frame (hours, days, or a week, depending on the seriousness of the concerns), they were told to call the internal reporting line, which acted as a layer of control above plant management. With the roll-out of this internal line, calls to MIOSHA disappeared overnight.
Be A Servant Leader
“Servant leadership” is a philosophical approach coined by Robert Greenleaf. Successfully leading the company towards a solid, positive, and vibrant safety culture, required servant leadership to be one of the distinguishing characteristics of the author’s approach. By embracing this concept, one begins seeing employees in a new light. Instead of branding them as “whiners” or “clock punchers” and viewing their safety complaints negatively like some others on the management team were doing, the author started seeing them as customers of the plant safety department’s efforts and programs.
As customers, they had to be given great customer service. They had to be cared for, valued, listened to, heard, and treated with respect and dignity every single day. They had to be shown that they were important, that their voices counted, and that their ideas and suggestions were not only wanted but needed. As his customers, they became the purpose of his work, not an interruption. The author was not doing them a favor by correcting the safety issues they were facing; they were doing him a favor by giving him the opportunity to correct the issues. They were giving him the opportunity to serve them. Because the author was serving them, he didn’t see himself as a receptacle of safety issues or complaints, but as a privileged person. Each time a safety issue was brought to his attention by an employee, the author was excited about the possibility of helping and started seeing himself, at that precise moment, as a privileged person. He thought, “This employee believes in me, that I can make their job and this workplace safer, better, and healthier. I have an obligation to deliver.” When the author embodied this new mindset and put it into practice, each day brought an opportunity for improvement rather than an unceasing list of safety problems to fix. By thinking that he must serve first, the author began seeing value in people and the potential that he could foster within them. The production floor workers became subject-matter experts who were solicited to offer solutions to problems.
Do Not Fight the Last War
As we grow older, we become more anchored to the past. Comfort and familiarity make us feel safe. Habits take over. Like a leech, we stick to techniques that have worked for us. Repetition replaces creativity. We don’t like to contemplate letting go of the very actions, tools, routines, tactics, and attitudes that were seen as responsible for past successes. That’s understandable, it’s basic human psychology — it’s just not an attitude that always helps an OHS professional move forward. In this particular case, the safety program’s success stood out because the author was able, when necessary, to drop his preconceived notions, comfortable practices, and routines, and focus intensively on the unique situation at hand. Whatever past successes the author had had did not mean simple replication would be destined for victory this time. The author could not settle for or lean on past successful methods, strategies, or techniques. Every situation is different and unique. Therefore, look at every situation as if you have never done so before. A mind rooted in past successful techniques and tactics cannot always clearly see the subtleties of the situation at hand, resulting in the creation of strategies that may miss the mark.
Be a Veteran Rookie
The author had to become what he called a “VeRo,” short for a veteran rookie. Veteran rookie sounds like an oxymoron. How can you be a veteran if you are also a rookie? Experience can be a curse and being a rookie can be an asset. Sometimes we’re at our very best when we know the very least. Because we have this questioning mindset that helps us think outside the box and maybe throw out the box. The author had to pair his hard-earned experience and knowledge with the naïve brilliance, vitality, and mental fluidity of a rookie. By maintaining mental fluidity, the author knew he would be able, not only to test all his assumptions, drop all his preconceived ideas and adapt his approach or style to the situation but also, and perhaps more importantly, to come up with techniques and tactics that were suitable to the situation, then use them in a manner that best fit the circumstances.
As an OHS professional, the first move toward transforming a safety culture is adopting a multi-faceted mindset that will help you successfully spearhead the plant’s efforts to achieve a new, vibrant, positive, outlook. This mindset should be rooted in humility, and the servant leadership principle, while blending hard-earned experience with the mental fluidity and vitality of a rookie. This mindset should also be grounded in gratitude and challenge past successful methods, techniques, and routines to ensure they are still relevant and have not outlived their usefulness. A mindset with the above-mentioned facets that blends harmoniously and is congruent with the desired safety outcomes, can become the most powerful weapon in an OHS professional’s mental arsenal.
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About the Author
Jean Ndana, ASP, CSP, ASQ-SSBB, ASQ-CQE has been in the safety arena for more than 25 years. His experience spans across multiple industries including oil & gas, food & beverage, automotive, construction, and steel manufacturing.
Author of several peer-reviewed professional articles, Jean was named the 2017 J.J. Keller Safety Professional of the Year and has received an “Honorable Mention” recognition during the 2018 American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) Innovation Award.
Speaker and Trainer at safety conferences and professional development seminars, Jean is also an External Advisory Board Member of the University of Michigan, Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering (COHSE).
Member of ASSP’s Greater Detroit Chapter, Jean is also a consultant. In this role, he advises senior leaders around the globe on how to leverage their roles to improve safety performance.