Sunday, June 16, 2019

Illusionary Safety: Are you just playing a role?

A theatrical production only works as entertainment to the extent of the audience’s willingness to suspend its skepticism, ignore reality and buy into the illusion.   Despite the drama and theatrics sometimes present, the workplace is not a stage and buying in to illusionary safety can be harmful or even deadly. 

“I never believed it would happen to me.”  Claim managers, medical professionals, and paramedics hear this repeatedly; many of us will even admit privately to saying the same thing. Most workers know the hazards present in their workplace but many underestimates their own risk and over-estimate their immunity from harm.  This dissonance between objective risk and individual perception of personal risk is often resolved in favour of adopting a sense of invincibility, the idea that some imaginary third wall protects the individual from even apparent risks in the work underway around them.  Many have been injured or died by accepting the illusion of safety over the reality of risk. 

Workplace injuries shatter the illusion of safety.  In workplaces where a life-altering injury occurs, co-workers often report an increase in the belief that “it can happen to me”; immediately following a workplace fatality or serious injury, everyone in the workplace is more alert to the potential of harm.  Workers and supervisors are alive to the reality of risk and believe in that reality.  This heightened vigilance, however, often fades with time.  New personnel, changed work procedures and the passage of time reset the stage, allowing workplace participants to slip back into the illusory mindset.  Objective observation of active violations of safe work procedures, for example, might be called out in the months following a serious event but selectively or even willingly overlooked as time passes.

Costumes and stagecraft distract from reality and contribute to the illusion in motion pictures and theatrical productions.  Context matters; uniforms and safety gear in a workplace are there to support safety not an illusion.  There is nothing inherently safe or protective about a strip of reflective cloth, but safety vests are more than costuming.  They are part of a system of safety, controlling hazards and minimizing risks.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)and other safety gear are not props.  Wearing safety goggles on your head and hearing protection around your neck are actions more akin to theatrical costuming than workplace health and safety.  A roofer wearing a fall arrest harness but failing to attach it or a deli worker wearing latex gloves but texting between serving customers— are examples of acting, not safety.  A caregiver gliding hands under cool water with little or no cleanser is acting—telling a story through actions that mimic reality but do nothing to ameliorate risk.  If you skip the hand washing and PPE when no one is around, you are deluding yourself and may still be putting others at risk. 

The first rule of improv is to say “yes ; work is not improvisational theatre.  If you don’t know how to do a task, lack training on equipment, or are unsure about risks, you have a right and responsibility to say “no.”  If you don’t have the right tool or lack the appropriate PPE, don’t improvise; every improvisation introduces new and potentially unanticipated risks.  The health and safety of yourself or others may be compromised by improvising.  A handkerchief is not a substitute for a respirator.

Safe work procedures may seem like a script or stage instructions but they are more than that.  They are specifically designed to control hazards, not entertain or engage audiences.  It is not enough to put on a safety “act”; there is a real difference between acting and being safe on the job.   That’s even true when acting is the job.  After all, actors and stunt artists are workers, too. Theatrical effects may create the illusion of danger and mayhem but are achieved by strict adherence to safety; engineering controls, safe working procedures and even choreography are essential to safety in modern stagecraft.

Safety is not stage magic:  an illusion with the appearance of truth (apologies to Tennessee Williams).  If you buy into illusionary safety, you are choosing to ignore the inherent risk reality of your workplace.  Putting on a safety act and reciting platitudes about safety hide the hard reality of hazards in the pleasant guise of illusionary safety. 

Engaging in illusionary safety is not just deluding yourself; it forces co-workers and other persons in the workplace into supporting roles or an unwitting audience in your production. Work is not performance art or street acting.  The safety of others depends on you.  Illusionary safety puts others at risk.

Don’t just “play the part” of a safety professional. Be one.