I used to think mindfulness – bringing your focus to only the immediate present – was dangerous. If I think only of what’s happening in the moment, how will I plan for the future? I wondered. I considered the mindfulness technique of focusing on one’s breath to be equally unsafe: If I’m just thinking about breathing in and out, I won’t think about what I’m doing. I’ll have an accident!
But years later, I’ve discovered the opposite is true. Focusing on my breath actually clears out distracting thoughts. Focusing on the present is better than having my mind on the future because if I want to be safe, I need to be focused on the task I’m doing now. Those mindfulness folks were right.
Mindfulness is getting a lot of press these days. Experts say it will make you happier, help you deal with difficulties that come your way, worry less, make friendships, relieve stress and reduce heart disease, blood pressure, chronic pain, depression and addictions, as well as address a host of other psychological disorders.
But will training employees in mindfulness reduce accidents in your organization? We’re still learning about mindfulness, but here are my top five reasons I believe it will:
1. Accidents are caused by distraction and inattention.
For example, in 2013 the University of California found that 32 percent of workers’ accidents on campus were caused by inattention or distraction, making this the largest cause of accidents. Ignoring proper procedures contributed to half as many accidents (UC Irvine, 2013).
Conversely, mindfulness writers like Thich Nhat Hahn teach that even when doing the most mundane task, we must let our task fill our awareness, using all our senses to observe every aspect of it. I used to think that this was a recipe for boredom, but I’ve actually found it makes life richer. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, to live fully in the moment is to truly live (Hahn, 1996).
2. Accidents are caused by negative emotions.
We all know a worker who is having a bad day can make mistakes because anger or stress from situations at home or the worksite can make it difficult to focus. In mindfulness training, employees are trained to notice their emotions without judging them and make a choice: to pay attention to the emotion, or to focus one’s thoughts on the breath.
3. Accidents are caused by mental fatigue.
Sometimes we’re not distracted – we’re simply brain-tired. It makes sense that accidents increase near the end of a shift: by the time we reach the end of the day, our minds crave rest. Learning mindfulness skills can help us minimize the dangerous effects of mental fatigue.
4. Accidents occur when people don’t ask for the help they need.
How many of us have lifted something when we should have asked for help? Lifting by oneself causes back injuries that can be debilitating for the worker and expensive for the employer. Mindfulness can reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can cause us to distrust people. We also want to lower cortisol because it suppresses oxytocin, the hormone that makes us trust, cooperate and work together. Because of how mindfulness changes the chemistry in our bodies, mindfulness increases the chances workers will work together.
5. Many accidents happen in seconds.
Some of the most tragic workplace accidents take place in just moments. A driver pins a worker with a forklift. A worker lifts off a cover and fire flies out of the barrel. A massive lever smashes a worker to the ground. But frequently, a strange phenomenon occurs. What happens in an instant seems like it transpires over at least ten minutes. Why does it seem like this?
Time slows down because your mind is helping you out. When something dangerous occurs, you are hyper-focused. Your mind notices details you normally don’t, so you can react and perhaps solve the problem.
It may be that mindfulness will help us even more. Emerging studies indicate a correlation between mindfulness training and improved reaction time (Brown et al., 2015). Mindfulness training may help us respond by giving us the extra mental alertness needed to notice what is happening more quickly.
So we still have much to learn, but I would suggest it’s not worth the wait. Go get some mindfulness training. Soon you will be noticing your emotions without judgment and focusing on the present, breathing and the task at hand. If you think it works, encourage your workforce to do it. There’s good evidence that it will reduce your accident rate.
Michael Labun was formerly a safety officer with a large manufacturer. Today he is a consultant and trainer with ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance. He is presently researching and writing a course on mindfulness and safety, which will be available through ACHIEVE in the fall of 2015.
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance
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