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Practitioner viewpoint

03 November 2021

Louise Ward asks how can we ensure that we put unconscious judgements aside in order to engage in a truly open manner.

I EXPERIENCED invisibility the other day. Not on a trip to the Harry Potter studio or anything exciting like that, but actually on my way home from work.

I’ve recently changed job and I’m taking advantage of my induction time to get out and about in the business. I was on my way home after a great site visit and happened to get off the train just as the local selective grammar school finished for the day. Walking up the road I found myself completely ignored by the students walking towards me. They pushed past and jostled as if I wasn’t even there, aside from one young woman who stopped dead in front of me and tutted until I stepped out of her way! Now this is my local station, and I know these young people are not the most considerate at the best of times, but I was surprised by their attitude on this occasion, and it wasn’t until later that I realised what was different. Rather than wearing a suit and carrying a laptop bag I was wearing branded workwear, hi-vis, and carrying a hard hat. 

We talk a lot about unconscious bias related to issues such as gender, race, LGBTQ, and age, but it surprised me to to think that young people from the ultra connected generation Z might exhibit unconscious bias on the basis of appearance, or that they might equate the way someone looks to their social standing.

This came into focus again over the weekend when I read an article written by a senior surgeon in the US. She was talking about the change in attitude that she has seen from her patients since the COVID pandemic forced her to swap the traditional crisp white coat of a senior doctor for generic scrubs. The article explains that despite having detailed conversations with patients about their symptoms, test results and treatment plan, they regularly assume that she is a nurse and ask when they will have a chance to talk their condition through with the doctor!

It’s sad to think that people unconsciously make such significant judgements based on visual appearance, and I wonder what this means for us in terms of safety? Is unconscious bias affecting the way that we engage in the business, and are we making assumptions based on unconscious judgements?

I think the most important tool for a health and safety professional is curiosity. I try to approach every situation with an open mind and use questioning to drive curious conversation which focuses on asking and facilitating rather than telling and deciding. I truly believe that all the knowledge we need to improve health and safety is out there in our businesses, and it is our job to help create a culture which allows everyone to engage and share their thoughts, concerns and improvement ideas. But how can we ensure that we put unconscious judgements aside in order to engage in a truly open manner? 

A lot comes down to leadership of course. Setting the right tone in the organisation, and challenging judgements and behaviours that appear to be based on bias. This kind of top down approach will help to change culture in the long term, but we can also take steps to remove some of the apparent ‘differences’ that might inhibit effective engagement. When I go out to site I wear the same uniform and PPE as the site based staff. Not my business suit with a hi-vis jacket over the top, or fancy non-standard safety equipment. I hope that normalising my appearance to fit into the environment will help to remove barriers to engagement, and make people feel more comfortable chatting with me. When I’m inviting site based staff into an office environment for a meeting or training session, I make sure that they have comprehensive joining instructions so that they know exactly what to expect, are familiar with the dress code, and are able to feel comfortable in the environment.

It is of course essential we take action to tackle prejudice on a macro level, but by making an effort to identify everyday barriers to inclusion, such as appearance, and taking steps to address these, we can chip away and the larger issue and help to ensure that everyone feels able to engage with health and safety on an equal level.

Louise Ward is safety & sustainability director at G&W UK – Safety. For more information, visit www.gwrr.co.uk