January 10, 2023 / Abby Roberts

Rockets and Risk Communication: Influencing Safety at a National Laboratory 

Author’s note: the mention of any products or services does not constitute endorsement by AIHA.

In 2008, three people were injured in an industrial accident at Sandia National Laboratories, a federally funded research and development center for the U.S. Department of Energy. Luckily, no one was killed—but the incident galvanized Sandia to reevaluate its approach to investigating and preventing accidents.

According to Brian Thomson, a health physicist at Sandia and head of the lab’s human performance improvement, just culture, and safety culture program, investigations usually implicate the workers nearest at hand when an accident occurs. Organizations “tend to point the fickle finger of blame and shame at the people who are closest to events,” he said. Instead, Thomson and others at Sandia chose to learn from the nuclear power industry, which he described as understanding human fallibility exceptionally well, and started looking for elements in employees’ work environments, tasks, and habits that would make accidents much more likely. Learning about human fallibility also led Thomson to discover the book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. Thomson credited this book with providing him with further insight into why people act the ways they do.

“Too frequently,” Thomson continued, “we look at events where someone’s involved and say, ‘That’s your fault. You didn’t try hard enough, or you didn’t care enough, or if you just tried or cared more, this wouldn’t have happened.’” But the reasons why people behave in certain ways are more sophisticated and nuanced, he explained. For example, people are more likely to make mistakes when they’re in a hurry or have several issues competing for their attention. Sometimes people are motivated but are assigned to a task without the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful at it—essentially setting them up for failure. And, finally, a worker may also experience unintended pressure from their supervisor, peers, or organization that incentivizes them to cut corners or take unsafe actions. “So, we have to be cognizant of the influence of other people and ‘things’ around them in their work environment,” Thomson said.

How can the influence of others be applied to reduce human error instead of exacerbate it?

The Importance of Influencing

C.J. Backlund, MS, CIH, CSP, an environmental safety and health (ESH) coordinator for Sandia, is also aware of the necessity of good leadership on the part of those charged with protecting occupational health and safety. In 2018, she attended AIHA’s leadership workshop as president-elect of the Rio Grande local section. When the workshop used the CliftonStrengths tool to analyze attendees’ skills, Backlund noted that industrial hygienists’ influencing skills tended to be relatively underdeveloped. Yet the profession needs to communicate IH knowledge to their workforce and employers.

When she returned to Sandia, Backlund joined Thomson as a co-instructor of a course that, by then, he had already taught for several years. Called “Influencer Training: The New Science of Leading Change,” after the book mentioned above, the two-day course introduces participants to the six sources of influence outlined in the book. It then helps participants apply what they learn to diagnosing conspiracies of causes behind events or undesirable results and identify effective strategies for influencing new behaviors and actions necessary for effective remediation. Although the course is delivered to people employed in a range of positions across Sandia, Thomson and Backlund frequently add a health and safety perspective to the material.

Teaching the course has shown them that “being a good influencer doesn’t have to be something you’re born with,” said Backlund. Industrial hygienists particularly benefit from learning the influencing skills taught by the course, she believes. In her view, IHs occupy leadership positions regardless of whether their jobs officially include managerial responsibilities. Influencer skills may help IHs be more efficient in their work because making their knowledge more relatable to the workforce and their employers helps them achieve their objectives more quickly.

“I think the course has a great payoff for them because they can strengthen their skills to influence, in a very efficient manner, the outcomes that they want,” said Backlund. These outcomes may include making the case to management that certain controls are necessary for reasons other than compliance, as well as obtaining funds for and implementing these controls.

Moreover, IH teams must work well together to be effective. “What levels of influence might the more senior folks have on the more junior folks?” asked Backlund.

Outside of, but adjacent to, the field of industrial hygiene, Thomson noted that Sandia’s causal analysts use the knowledge and strategies they learn in the course when investigating safety incidents. “Now they look well beyond just a single cause, and look instead for a complex web of causes,” said Thomson.

In his own work, he uses influencing strategies proactively when rolling out new programs. After identifying barriers and obstacles that might prevent or delay the programs’ adoption, Thomson helps others see their value so that implementation progresses more smoothly. Influencer strategies help Thomson convince the people he supports to do what’s required for them to be safe at work—such as using personal protective equipment consistently, predictably, and reliably—even when he’s not there to supervise them. “Sometimes ESH professionals are put in the position of being the ‘safety cop,’” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people behaved in a safe manner irrespective of whether the ESH professional were there?”

Skills for Creating Change

To date, the Influencer course has been taught more than 25 times at Sandia. Backlund and Thomson hope that the course, along with two other leadership and communication courses they also teach, will spark a shift in Sandia’s overall culture that will help the lab safely fulfil its national mission. But while the organization benefits in the long run, “the short-run payoff is to the individual because it lowers their level of frustration around getting the outcomes that they want,” said Backlund. She sees the course’s primary focus as helping the participants have more successful, satisfying careers.

“I would think about influencing as the skill you need to be a change agent,” she said.

Thomson and Backlund have previously only taught at Sandia, but at AIHce EXP 2023, they’ll deliver the Influencer course as a professional development course for the first time. PDC 707, “Influencer Training: The New Science of Leading Change” will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mountain time, on May 20 and 21.

Backlund stressed that IHs can lead from wherever they are, regardless of whether they’re officially managers. “I want people to know that, as industrial hygienists or as attendees of AIHce EXP, they’re all leaders,” she said. “The content that they’ll receive over the course of two days can really be for anyone.”

AIHce EXP 2023 will be held May 22–24 both virtually and on site at Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. To view the program or to register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is The Synergist's editorial assistant.


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