Safety Through Osmosis?

By Bill Dampf, C.S.P., Let’s Talk Success Presentations

Although science was not an area of study where I excelled, one of the easiest concepts for me to grasp was the process of osmosis. There are many complicated definitions of this process, but the simplified explanation is the movement of a material such as water through a membrane from an area of higher concentration to one of lower concentration. The result is equalization.

Although a scientific concept, this process can be seen in many areas of our everyday life. Our thinking and our behavior can be influenced by the pressure of those around us. Likewise, we can inject our thinking and beliefs into others. In some cases, this process, or change, goes virtually unnoticed. A practical example of this is where a person learns a different language by simply being around people who are speaking it. The individual picks it up a word or phrase at a time and eventually is able to participate in simple conversations. The language difference becomes equalized over time. 

So what does this have to do with safety?

Very simply, we are either influencing others or they are influencing us. In a workgroup setting, the culture of that workgroup is best defined by the thoughts, beliefs and actions that are demonstrated by the individuals within it. There is a natural tendency, similar to osmosis where these thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors equalize or become shared within a workgroup. This culture will determine many things, including the quality and quantity of work performed and also the level of safety exercised while performing it.

One concern that has been shared with me is the impact of a negative culture on a new employee or apprentice. A great deal of time is spent training and developing the desired skills, work ethic, and the level of safety that we want this employee to exercise. Once this training is complete, we place the new worker into an existing culture. This culture could be fantastic in all areas. But, what if it isn’t? What happens in this case? Will the pressure of the existing culture be too great and over time the thoughts, beliefs and behaviors of the workgroup become that of the new employee? In all likelihood, the answer is yes.

Our first challenge is to recognize how culture develops and sustains itself within a workgroup. Recognizing the power of culture we must take steps to move it in a positive direction. This can only be done if we develop safety champions or informal leaders within our workgroups that can not only withstand the pressure of a negative culture but also inject their positive influences on it. New employees need to be developed where safety becomes a deep-seated value within them. Systems need to be put in place to provide them with the support they will need to demonstrate and defend that value. Positive mentors should be identified and assigned to these new workers and tasked with assessing and providing feedback on an apprentice’s work performance and also provide a support mechanism on how to handle challenges they encounter in the field.

Osmosis is all about concentration and pressure. We must increase the positive concentration of safety in our companies and build the pressure necessary to move the culture towards one that embraces safety simply as the way we do business.

Bill Dampf is the retired Director of Corporate Safety and Health for a Midwest electric and natural gas utility. He has been in the safety profession for 36 years and an international speaker for 15. He has acquired both his BS degree and Masters degree in Industrial Safety, is a Certified Safety Professional and published author. In Bill’s spare time he gets to travel on behalf of his own company, “Let’s Talk Success Presentations” where he shares his passion for achieving personal success and success in safety with workers, companies, associations and at conferences across North America. Bill would welcome the opportunity to share a safety message with your workers. To contact Bill call 573-230-3910, email him at bdampf@aol.com or visit his website at www.ltspresentations.com.

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