What Is Safety?

What is safety? Is it someone with the title of safety inspector walking around the job site saying: "Don't do this. Don't do that. Wear your hard hat. Replace that machine guard"? Does safety mean danger and risk, or is it protection from injury or damage? It is all these things, of course, but it is also a great deal more.

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Safety is a way of life—meaning that it is not something one should have to stop and think about, but should be as familiar and about as automatic as breathing. Of course, breathing comes naturally from day one, but safety only becomes automatic as we gradually absorb the lessons learned from parents, teachers, books, and our own trial-and-error experiences.

Most of us have by this time reached the point where certain habits of safety are ingrained—such as looking in all directions before crossing at a busy intersection. But to ensure the security that comes from making safety a way of life, on and off the job, we have to pay the price—which is cheap, compared to the dividends.

The price? It's the same as "how to get to Carnegie Hall," namely, practice, practice, and more practice. This means that until we have made safety a part of everything we do in our lives, we need to force ourselves to think how to do it in such a way that neither we nor anyone else will suffer harm as a result. This can be done. After all, consider the hazardous jobs many men and women work at every day without harm.

On the other hand, consider some of the sports we watch, either live or on television, in which—let’s admit it—some of the fascination is the element of danger we know is present. Surely, no one steps onto the soccer field or into the racing car at the Indianapolis speedway without years of practice and training in which safety awareness was an integral part. That preparation makes it possible to concentrate on the goals of the particular game or race without consciously thinking about safety.

But we know that accidents, sometimes dreadful ones, do happen on the field or the track, with severe injuries or even death as the result. Does that mean that safety training and practice are not enough to keep us injury free at our jobs either?

Not necessarily. There's an element of competition in sports—even those like mountain climbing or hang gliding, where you're competing only against nature or against your own previous accomplishment. And the athlete, having learned all the relevant safety lessons but also aware of the risks, chooses to take the chance and go for the win.

Here at work, however, we’re all on the same team. We may want to surpass a former production record or make our widgets faster, better, and cheaper than Brand X—but we don’t do it by taking chances with our own safety and that of the co-workers who are our teammates. Instead, we continue to think about safety whenever a work decision has to be made. We conscientiously observe the safety rules and consciously practice the safe behavior we've learned. We wear the safety glasses, clear the debris from the aisles, mop up spills promptly, and read the label on any chemical we’re going to use.

If this hasn’t already become automatic behavior, it will with further practice—and as with any accomplishment, some people may need more practice than others. At any rate, once we have all paid the necessary price of practicing safety, we will all share the dividend—a workplace in which the odds against our being injured on the job have become greater and greater.

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