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What Is Mindfulness and How Can It Improve Safety?

Mar 08, 2018

Safety professionals are no strangers to the idea that it’s important to pay attention. AfterWhat Is Mindfulness and How Can It Improve Safety? all, when someone misses a beat in safety, workers could be seriously injured or worse. But when the word “mindfulness” enters the conversation, conjuring associations with alternative medicine and cognitive behavioral therapy, some people shut down and stop listening.

Introducing Mindfulness to Workers

“I am mindful not to use words like ‘meditation’ or ‘Zen’ because I do not want people to view mindfulness in that way,” says Kris Corbett, national director of on-site occupational health and safety for Wellness Coaches USA, in an interview with Professional Safety.

Instead, Corbett starts introducing the concept of workplace mindfulness by exploring what it feels like to behave mindlessly. Mindlessness is another way of thinking about what others call being on “autopilot,” she says. When a worker’s brain is on autopilot, a reaction that often comes from performing routine tasks over a long period of time, that individual is more likely to engage in risky behavior on the job. Mindfulness is the opposite: When you are mindful, you are living in the present moment. 

How can safety professionals use mindfulness to put themselves and their employees back in the driver’s seat of their own actions? According to Corbett, it’s best to start small.

Mindful Techniques Anyone Can Use

 “I begin with a brief exercise,” she says. “’Let’s take a minute and just breathe. Let’s take a few seconds and listen to what is around us in the room.’”

By using 5-minute, simple mindfulness practices such as focusing on breath, and gradually working toward mindfulness sessions of 15 minutes or longer, Corbett helps people train their brains to avoid distractions and stick with one activity at a time. She even recommends that individuals take 30-second breaks in the middle of the day to simply notice their breath, stop functioning on autopilot and notice the sensations they are experiencing: What does it feel like to hold a particular object? Is the room cool or warm? Are there any sounds or smells?

Taking a Whole-Body Approach

Mindfulness extends beyond a person’s thoughts and emotions. When a worker’s brain and body are performing tasks on autopilot, it’s common for injury warning signs to go unnoticed. But when managers encourage workers to perform regular body scan exercises and take note of their physical responses to stimuli, it may be easier to address minor pain before it becomes a problem.

“Often, safety professionals chase injuries after they have occurred,” Corbett says. “However, what might happen if you ask workers questions such as, ‘What are you feeling? Are your feet bothering you? Your back? Your shoulders?’ The answers can reveal what type of program, be it educational or an ergonomics intervention, workers need to combat the next possible recordable injury.”

Situational Awareness and Safety

Last but not least, any discussion of mindfulness and safety should include how people can use breathing and body scan strategies to improve their situational awareness. A person who is situationally aware is attentive to the environments and relationships they inhabit. That means staying attuned to several things at once; not only the sensations in the body, but also the ways those sensations impact movement through a space and interactions with others.

When Corbett started reviewing injury trends with one particular group with whom she worked, she was reminded of the importance of putting mindfulness in context.   

“I started to notice issues related to focus and awareness,” she says. “That included people not being aware when they were walking, then tripping over curbs, or not noticing signs warning of a wet floor, then slipping on that floor.”

In addition to slips, trips and falls, Corbett says OSHA’s top four hazards for construction fatalities – struck by, caught in, falls and electrocution – have all been tied to issues related to focus and awareness. According to her, if workers are unaware of their surroundings and are not paying attention to what they are doing, the data show they are more likely to experience an incident. By making mindfulness an accessible practice, and giving workers the tools they need to keep it up, safety professionals can significantly change lives – and not just in the workplace.

“Today, mindfulness is being advanced as a key to health and happiness,” she continues. “It can be applied to many different issues, from productivity, to stress, to work-life balance, to improving relationships and listening skills.”  

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