Avoid Autopilot

Applying mindfulness in health and safety

by Christina Fry

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When it comes to health and safety, it’s time to retrain the brain and think mindfully. Christina Fry explains.

It may not come as a surprise to learn that recordable or lost time injury accidents at work usually occur when we are completing a task that is familiar to us. But have you ever stopped to question why?

The truth, quite simply, is that when we are doing something familiar, we are all too often failing to pay attention to the present moment, the here and now. Our brains and bodies, go on autopilot and we begin to lose sight of what we are doing and plan ahead – and, while we might get away with this approach at a desk, it spells trouble when it comes to production environments or driving.

So, what’s the solution? Quite simply, we need to stop ‘making time’ for health and safety. Yes, that’s right, I really did say stop making time!

The idea of making time for anything suggests ringfencing the thing in question for consideration only at a certain time. Ironically, the very things we seek to make time for – family, friends, relaxation – are often the elements of our lives that get side-lined for seemingly bigger and more pressing priorities. But of course, being safe simply doesn’t work like that. Instead it needs to be a natural part of our day to day activity. When it comes to health and safety, we need to start being far more mindful.

“We are all under pressure to deliver more, for less. But as we strive to drive up profit and drive down waste, the result is often a slump in productivity.”

I admit, mindfulness is not a term you’ll hear commonly in our industry, but it should be. The very process of focusing on the present and developing a more acute consciousness of the here and now is exactly what is needed.

We are all under pressure to deliver more, for less. But as we strive to drive up profit and drive down waste, the result is often a slump in productivity. ‘Rushing’ becomes a culture – and we are so caught up in our thoughts that we stop noticing the impact they are having on our emotions and behaviour.

By introducing a culture of mindfulness into the workplace, we can directly effect change and encourage an environment where all of us see the present moment clearly and are alive to sights, sounds and sensations around us at any given time. By default, we can then recognise and address possible risks and dangers far more effectively.

There are wider benefits of mindfulness at work, too, not least increased concentration and reduced stress. But it’s not an overnight solution. It takes time to achieve and it starts with retraining the brain.

That might seem like an altogether too theoretical concept, but in fact the ‘Green Cross Code’ gives us a brilliant and simple example of how this can work. As adults, the everyday process of stopping, looking and listening before we cross the road is in-built. We don’t think about it, we just do it. But this wasn’t an innate ability we were born with, we had to learn it through repetition and practice.

“That means empowering all staff to stop and pause for thought and, where necessary, challenge the status quo. “

To get to this point, we need to move away from health and safety rules and instead encourage the right behaviours. Safe working must become a personal responsibility, not a question of doing as we are told. That means empowering all staff to stop and pause for thought and, where necessary, challenge the status quo.

Rushing through tasks in a bid to boost productivity has the potential to result in serious accidents and injuries. Slowing things down, being in the moment, and staying mindful at all times will ultimately make us all both safer and more productive.

What’s good for health, is good for business.

Author Details

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Christina Fry

Chemical Engineer, and UK/Ireland Environment Health & Safety Manager for Air Products, one of the world’s leading industrial gas suppliers.