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Philo-safety: Improving our practice in 2019

In case it has not become abundantly clear over the last decade or so of penning this blog, there is something about this time of year that sets me to pondering the enormity of just about anything and everything (if I’m not doing onsite work, my morning routine is to get my first 10K steps in before breakfast—plenty of time to contemplate, ruminate, and various other solipsistic activities). To enhance the “environment” of the morning walk, I listen to podcasts that tend to cover other folks’ life experiences. One of my favorites is the Nerdist podcast, which tends to lean towards tech and entertainment coverage, but lately there’s been a conversational thread relating (to various degrees) to the philosophy of stoicism (please bear with me: I’ll loop this back around in a minute).

For those of you not familiar with the roots of stoicism, it goes back to the times of the ancient Greeks and, if I may steal a passage from Epictetus (bet you never expected to find him here—and neither did I!), the foundational notion geos a little something like this: “In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories; externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” (if you’re interested in finding out more about the particulars of Epictetus and the philosophy of stoicism, you can find a bunch of stuff here).

So in looking at that dynamic, I started to think about the importance of how we, as safety professionals, interact with our “charges.” By that, I mean: Do we react to circumstances or do we respond to them? While there is a case to be made for react and respond as synonyms, I think that there is a subtle (OK, maybe not that subtle) shift from a “reaction” to a “response.” To me, “response” tends to be the result of a more thoughtful, measured consideration of whatever issue, concern, etc., we might be facing. Framing this in this age of social media, I think we need only glance at Twitter (and sometimes the various newscasts) if you’re looking for some reactive materials, but “response” seems rather more in short supply than is good for any of us. At any rate, my personal challenge for this year is to work towards the “response” side of the equation and to reduce the level of reactivity (including while driving in Massachusetts!).

One of the things that can (and does, to one degree or another) influence our reactive versus responsive nature is the presence of what can euphemistically be referred to as “implicit social cognition,” which manifests itself as hidden or unconscious bias. One could certainly debate how much impact implicit social cognition has on our individual lives, practices, etc., but there is a group at Harvard University that is trying to collect data on just this topic with anonymous testing and other activities. I’ve always been fascinated by the various psychologies that influence the workplace environment and I think the folks at Project Implicit are looking at some really interesting stuff. I haven’t done a deep, deep dive into their materials yet, but I did take the first Implicit Association Test and I can definitely see how this process might help each of us understand some of our inner workings. I do believe that the more we can learn about ourselves and how we interact with others can only help the “quality” of those interactions. To that end, I would encourage you to check out the materials noted here and if you do (no pressure), please let me know (you can share it with the group or with me directly at stevemacsafetyspace@gmail.com).

And here’s to a safe, healthy and productive 2019!