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March 20, 2012
Mindfulness—A New Approach to Workplace Safety and Health Training

It’s well known that workers who perform the same tasks day after day tend to lose focus on the hazards because the work becomes routine. Marc Gomez has some innovative ideas about how to turn that around by training employees to become more conscious about what they’re doing and the attendant risks.

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Gomez is assistant vice chancellor for facilities management and environmental health and safety at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). The university is known for a strong commitment to undergraduate education and top research and graduate programs. Its new school of law graduates its first class this year.

According to Gomez, safety is increasingly integrated into campus culture. One means to do this is to identify an onsite safety representative within each of the approximately 800 work units on the vast campus. The EHS staff works with these individuals to help them improve safety at their sites.

Another valuable resource is the university’s EHS academic coordinators. These are staff members funded jointly by academic departments and the EHS office. The coordinator combines knowledge of safety and health with insight into the work of the department to make recommendations about procedures. Gomez says this model has contributed to UCI’s status as the campus with the lowest injury and severity rates in the UC system.

Like other organizations with a strong safety culture, UCI is committed to excellence in training. At the University of California Learning Center employees receive training—both online and live—required by Cal/OSHA and by the university. The center is a single source of training and a repository of who has been trained on what.

There’s a special emphasis on training for the campus’s 450 labs whose employees routinely work with biological, radioactive, chemical, and other types of hazardous materials.

Lab training is structured around a 12-module core safety curriculum. The EHS department partners with site safety representatives to create training procedures specific to the work of individual labs. A new course called “Creating Safety Culture in Your Lab” was developed to meet the specific needs of principal investigators—individuals who lead research projects.

A separate curriculum with eight modules has been developed for other (nonlab) workers. All employees can log onto the training site and take a quick self-assessment that determines what training is needed to safely perform their jobs.

A Mindful Approach
As a 30-year veteran of the safety profession, Gomez has given plenty of thought to the causes of injury. “We do follow-ups and look closely at the root causes. And we see the main cause of accidents is inattention and a lack of mindfulness about one’s circumstances and surroundings. Workplace safety is a state of mind.”

He believes part of the problem is the barrage of incoming information from digital and nondigital sources. “It made sense to me that it we could get people to be more mindful, and in the moment it would reduce accidents.”

He evokes the image of an individual walking through the parking lot glued to the cell phone. A trip and fall keeps the worker off the job for weeks.

The idea of applying mindfulness to safety caught the attention of clinical psychologist Jessica Drew de Paz. She joined the EHS department about 9 years ago. “The reason I was hired demonstrates Marc’s outside-the-box thinking,” she says.

Gomez had a staff of highly competent safety professionals, but he was looking for someone who could help the department find new and better ways to reach people. He hired Drew de Paz to oversee safety and health training.

She had always been interested in the concept of mindfulness. Learning that inattention was a top cause of safety accidents inspired Drew de Paz and Gomez to secure funding for research into this new and promising area of training. They are currently developing a mindfulness curriculum.

“I realized that we offer 60 safety training courses and none of them address this idea of staying in the moment,” says Drew de Paz. “To me it’s akin to physical exercise—you can be physically fit, but a trainer really shows you how. We need to be shown how to be mindful.”

In the Moment
Gomez and Drew de Paz discovered that mindfulness was at the heart of stress-reduction work going on at the UCI Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine. The Center’s courses may be integrated into the EHS training. Another resource is the University of Washington, which has developed a mindfulness-based relapse model to assist people with addiction.

What would mindfulness-based safety training look like and how would it help people on the front lines? Gomez points to campus dining services, a source of frequent cuts, burns, and other incidents.

The training would aim to reduce incidents by teaching employees how to become more aware of their surroundings and remain “in the moment” rather than pulled away by distractions. Drew de Paz believes applying these principles to safety would give workers a way to feel better about how they’re living and working.

She quoted a mindfulness expert who says the real tragedy of life ending is not when one dies, but is about all those moments when one hasn’t been living. Adds Drew de Paz, “If we live in the moment we can have a healthier and better life.”

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