January 26, 2021 / Colin Brown

Three Ways to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is one of the most valuable skills for occupational and environmental health and safety professionals because it empowers you to solve difficult problems while cultivating leadership abilities. In this profession, it is essential to have a framework for thinking about complex issues and making decisions that affect workers' well-being. When we develop our critical thinking skills, we prepare to do the best thinking we can, in any circumstances.

This post will identify ways to improve your critical thinking skills so that you can solve safety and health issues with clarity and confidence.

Assess Your Thinking

It is essential to evaluate our thought processes and approaches to problem-solving. A crucial part of critical thinking is developing intellectual humility—in other words, being open-minded while seeking to learn more.

There are several strategies for developing intellectual humility. First, when you cannot find enough evidence to justify your own beliefs about an idea, reframe the idea in your mind by thinking, "It seems to me that" or "Until now, I have believed...." Another strategy is to recognize when you argue for a belief without having evidence to back it up.

A third strategy is to think about the beliefs that seem unmistakably true to you, and then question those beliefs. During this process, seek out new sources of information that can offer alternative viewpoints and insights. We can also identify ways to improve our thinking by asking ourselves how our biases influence our thinking and how our environment has shaped our beliefs.

Ask the Right Questions

For industrial hygienists and safety professionals, asking questions plays a crucial role in protecting worker health. As experts, we are often tasked with having the right answers, but it is equally important to ask the right questions.

The Paul-Elder Critical Thinking Framework identifies several elements of reasoning. These elements include purpose, questions, information, inferences, concepts, assumptions, implications, and points of view.

Let's apply these concepts to chemical exposure assessment. If we want to evaluate worker exposure to a solvent, we might ask, "What is the purpose of this assessment?" Are we conducting a baseline survey or surveillance? How does the answer affect our assessment strategy, and what questions is our assessment trying to answer? What information do we need to make inferences and reach conclusions about whether a process is well-controlled? Are the concepts behind these assessments robust?

We also need to evaluate our assumptions and points of view. For example, if we judge a process to be well-controlled, are we assuming that the controls in place are effective and consistently maintained? Are we considering the results of previous assessments or any changes in the process? How do our biases influence our judgment? Finally, if we accept our line of reasoning, what are its implications or consequences?

Gain a New Perspective

We can continue to improve our critical thinking skills by gaining new perspectives. Looking at problems from a different viewpoint can help us understand issues at a deeper level. One way to look at things differently is to visualize concepts using pictures, charts, and diagrams. Using mind maps and graphical tools can improve our critical thinking because they allow us to organize information uniquely.

For example, we can create a map of an industrial process and gain a new perspective by circling or highlighting potential or confirmed chemical exposures on the map. This exercise allows us to view the process as a whole and may reveal exposure patterns that we did not previously identify. We can sketch out concepts in mind maps or diagrams at a basic level. Another common method is to use sticky notes to organize, connect, and categorize concepts or ideas. We can categorize job tasks, processes, agents, and exposures in this way to identify similar exposure groups. In addition, many software solutions offer brainstorming, mind-mapping, and other ways to organize information visually.

Continuous Improvement

As OEHS professionals, we advance health and safety by applying a continuous improvement methodology to processes. Continuously improving our own thinking will allow us to solve occupational health and safety problems more efficiently and confidently. We are responsible for making decisions that affect worker well-being. By becoming better critical thinkers, we will also be more prepared to apply our profession's art and science to meet our mission of protecting worker health.

Colin Brown

Colin Brown, CSP, CIH, is an environmental health and safety professional and educator with extensive industry experience in biopharmaceuticals, manufacturing, healthcare, academia, and research. Colin serves as the Professional and Organizational Advancement Manager at the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP).


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