I’m not here to buck the trend of social media ‘influencers’ telling you to meditate and drink herbal tea (because I’ll do that later) rather to let you in on what seems to be a well-kept secret: we owe our lives to stress.

Without stress we would blissfully roast our hands against a hot stove, or stagger our way into on-coming traffic where smiling motorists would mow us down. Stress is helpful. It’s only when mismanaged that it starts killing us.

I have written many articles but I tend to limit myself to the best magazines, hence finding myself gracing the pages of HSI magazine once again. Tasked with writing about “above the neck” safety, my immediate thought, at the risk of sounding trite, was that all safety begins above the neck.

Your brain is the control centre. It dictates, and the body follows. But aside from the brain’s uses to keep our arms from flailing into molten metal, it’s the mentality with which we approach our work that is perhaps the most important aspect of safety. So use and protect your head. Use whatever PPE is required by your employer, your task, or your circumstances. After all, keeping one’s head from being crushed, airways from being restricted, and eardrums from bursting, should be fairly high on most people’s list of priorities.

Head protection begins with keeping your head attached to your body at all times. From there try not to get it cut, don’t inhale toxins, avoid being pulped and/or mangled, and try to avoid losing an eye, ear, or any teeth. For more details talk to your safety representative. So how should you use your head in safety? Well let’s begin with asking yourself some basic questions.

Am I qualified?

This is a question one should always ask oneself – even if one has done the job many times before. Probe a little deeper than a simple yes or no answer. Ask yourself what, specifically, qualifies you to do the job? Experience? In general, experience is a pretty poor teacher. Did you work with someone who showed you how to do the job? Studies have shown that shadow training is ineffective as the trainee only retains about 85% off what they were shown, so if your “instructor” was trained in a similar manner the best you can hope to learn is around 70% or so. What’s worse is that you also are likely to have picked up dangerous short cuts or even had important safety considerations forgotten.

Attackable Gateways

While stress is of course problematic if not managed, one way to lower your cortisol levels is to go about your working day secure in the knowledge that you’re fully equipped with the correct PPE for the tasks you’ll face – and that you know intimately how it all functions. As an example, if your daily grind is welding, you’ll be wanting full face welding helmet, goggles, ear plugs or earmuffs – and of course a respirator to protect against fumes and oxides – in addition to flame resistant clothing and aprons, and protective boots and gloves. It would also be strongly advisable to wear fire resistant head covering under your helmet.

I’m not advocating certain protection above others: all PPE is important, that’s a given – it wouldn’t be recommended if it didn’t help to protect your health. But just as an aside, when you think of the weakest points on the human body, (after a few obvious low blows) the eyeballs are right up there in terms of squishy, attackable gateways for potential pain. To quote CCOHS (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety):

“Eye injury can occur from the intense light and radiation that a welding arc can produce. Eye injury can also occur from hot slag and other metal debris that can fly off from the weld during cooling, chipping or grinding.” I don’t know if it’s just me, but I literally want none of those things in my eyes. I like being able to see, thank you, it’s great. So all I add is this: wear your eye protection at all times when welding.

Am I physically able?

It’s a fact of life: the older we get the harder it is to do the little things that once seemed so easy to do. Just as a tool wears out so too do our bodies. And if a task is a particular physical one it may constitute a real threat to our wellbeing.

You should also ask yourself about your physical health. A lot of people suffer heart attacks and other serious health problems on the job. Law enforcement and firefighters have a disproportionate number of heart attacks. In the middle of a pandemic many of us feel fortunate to be working at all, and many people report to work unfit for duty.

Your fitness for work isn’t all about life threatening illnesses, but if you aren’t feeling well you aren’t able to perform at your peak and may well be so focused on your symptoms that you will make a mistake that causes an injury to you or someone else.

Stress and survival

Everyone these days seems to be talking about the dangers of stress and frankly many of them don’t seem to know much about it, but take a look at social media and you will find that not knowing about something seems to actually encourage people to talk about it. Stress, simply put, is our body’s way of protecting us from danger. But, the same reflexes designed to preserve us turn against us like a jilted ex-lover. For more on stress see my article in “Entrepreneur” Magazine, When You Understand Stress You Can Manage It.

So what can you do to reduce stress? Plenty:

  1. Eat right – Not as easy as you might think, just check out the break room of the average business and you will find selections laced with sugar, salt, and fat. Consider packing a lunch.
  2. Work out – Exercise tricks your body into thinking that you are fighting or fleeing so it burns off the extra toxins that are released during fight/flight
  3. Meditate – Whether Tai Chi, prayer, yoga, or silent contemplation, spending an hour a day recharging your spiritual batteries can help significantly lower your stress.

Tokyo Decibels

Did you know, that until 2015, children in suburban Tokyo were not allowed to exceed 45dB? I’m not sure how ‘up’ on noise levels you are, but that roughly equates to a bird call, or fractionally louder than you’d be in a library. Think conversation in a restaurant and you’ve gone too loud. To put it yet further into perspective, according to the World Health Organization: “To avoid sleep disturbance, indoor guideline values for bedrooms are 30 dB LAeq for continuous noise and 45 dB LAmax for single sound events.”

While everyone will have their own views on whether children should be seen and not heard, there’s one thing we can likely all agree on: with such low decibels in action people’s hearing will be mighty well protected! Now back to the workplace, where noise levels frequently exceed Tokyo restrictions. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), over one million employees in Great Britain are exposed to levels of noise which put their hearing at risk. So what can we do? Well, we monitor sound levels, assess the risk, and determine whether it is safe to work in an environment – either indefinitely with PPE, or for a restricted amount of time if it is particularly loud. What with this article focusing on using the head as more than just a hat rack (or ear defender mannequin), it seems pertinent to add that of course where work can be carried out away from a noisy environment – or likewise the noise moved away from the workspace – this should be the preference. Not plodding on regardless with earmuffs in tow.

Am I mentally able?

Here I am talking about the things that you don’t often think about as having a negative effect on your ability to do the job. There are many things that can affect your fitness to work both mentally and physically.

Distraction

When you are worried about money, your kids, politics, the pandemic or whatever fresh hell waits lurking just around the corner, your head isn’t really “in the game” as they say. When you are distracted you are far more likely to make a mistake

Behavioural drift

Every job has a correct way to do it most safely, and I think a lot of people begin their employment following the rules, if not to the letter, then awfully close to the letter. But as we get familiar with a job we deviate (usually subconsciously) away from the standard operating procedure. Most processes have tolerances, yet behavioural drift happens so gradually that it is difficult to spot and that is why audits are so important. It’s like a restart of the system and it should never be punitive.

Mental health issues

From anxiety disorders to depression your mental health can affect your job performance. If you suffer from such an ailment be sure to consult an appropriate physician, follow his or her instructions, and take your prescribed medications.

Am I fatigued?

I could have listed this under either mental health or physical aspects of stress but I find that fatigue is a hybrid of both. Fatigue is caused by prolonged stress and as I wrote some time ago, the link between stress and illness is scientifically well-established. Recent research into fatigue and sleep deprivation has found strong links between worker fatigue and injuries, impaired judgment, and at-risk behaviour. In a study 2007 conducted by Vegso et al researchers found an 88% increased risk of an incident for individuals working more than 64 hours a week. As employers try to do more work with fewer workers, workers are often forced to work while sleep-deprived. As workers tire, they make more mistakes and riskier choices, are less likely to comply with rules, and may become combative.”

Resiliency is the answer

In layman’s terms, resiliency is a person’s ability to bounce back from a traumatic event. Some of you may be thinking that describing one’s job as a “traumatic event” is just the melodramatic complaining of a malcontent, but that is precisely what many jobs are. Despite all the research and findings that fatigue is a killer, companies continue to literally work the employees to death.

More and more companies are implementing resiliency programmes, but it is too soon to see how effective these programs actually are. To scientifically judge the effectiveness of a resilience programme you would need a control group and most would agree that doing nothing to battle chronic fatigue would be immoral. So what can we say to our executive suites, how can we justify a resiliency programme with no empirical evidence that such an approach would work.

At the risk of sounding soft in the head, we really need to take a hard look at how we view workers and work. When we put profit before people any money spent on the health and well-being of the people is considered waste as it consumes resources and does not add intrinsic value to the products or services delivered.

I am quick to criticise people for simple-minded solutions, but since this article’s focus is protecting your head by actually using it, I’m going to keep it simple here: if you want to know more, maybe you’ll have the impetus to think the points through for yourself.

Tips for building resilience:

  • Maintain an optimistic outlook
  • Get in shape
  • Build healthy and close relationships
  • Stay away from mental ‘junk food’
  • Forgive someone

“more and more companies are implementing resiliency programmes”

Pardon?

Excessive noise often irreparably damages the nerves that control the ability to hear. So not only does it cause hearing loss, this loss is permanent and irreversible.
Hearing loss caused by exposure to noise at work continues to be a significant occupational disease. Some 17,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work. Factors that contribute to hearing damage are noise levels and how long people are exposed to the noise, daily or over a number of years.
Good news: Hearing loss caused by work is preventable. Bad news: Once your hearing has gone, it won’t come back. Damage can cause loss of hearing ability and people may also suffer a permanent sensation of ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus. As a touch more good news, to round off the sandwich, here are a few things you can do to prevent it:
• The most efficient and effective way of controlling noise is by technical and organisational means that protect workers at source, e.g. changes in process, reducing vibration (damping) and reducing time spent in noisy areas.
• Health surveillance or hearing checks are vital to detect and respond to early signs of damage.
• There are many practical, cost-effective ways of protecting yourself and your workers. For more information from the HSE, follow this snazzy QR code:

So what’s the answer?

The time for building resilience is before you have a problem and that is a hard sell for many of us. Everyone seems to believe they are one lottery ticket away from becoming a millionaire, and leaders of organisations are no different. COOs don’t respond to “what ifs?” most are more of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of thought. Unfortunately, once we’ve broken the worker, we can’t easily fix him or her.

Building Resilience

Since I’m quick to criticise simple-minded solutions, I’ve turned that lens on myself for just a moment. Visit HSI to see the analysis of what I wrote on the subject of resilience for OH Professional in 2018.

Conclusion

Even though your employer has a legal and moral responsibility for keeping you safe that may or may not happen, so you have to be thinking about your safety. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders; let’s keep it there.