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5 Things the Safety Profession can Learn from the Wizard of Oz

Kristina (My 11 year old daughter): “Dad, want to watch some TV?”

Me: “Sure! I’ll get the popcorn.”

Kristina: “I’ll see what’s on.”

Me: “Hey, it’s Thursday night. Want to watch a little footb…”

Kristina: “NOOO! The Wizard of Oz is on, let’s watch that.”

Me: “OK”. (Hey, if she wants to watch TV with me, I’ll watch what she wants to watch)

Now, I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz about a hundred times before, but this time it was different. What was different, you ask. This time Dorothy, her dog Toto and her companions used engineering controls, various safety procedures and training, and personal protective equipment to avoid hazards and reach the Emerald City safely…well, not exactly. As much as I would like to think that safety played even a small role that just wasn’t the case. What was different was my view of the movie which was completely unintentional. I viewed it from a safety perspective and as a result it was like watching a completely new version of the movie.

The Wizard of Oz tells a wonderful story and like every great story, it features a seemingly insurmountable conflict, a supporting group of characters that help make it possible to overcome the conflict, and five safety lessons. Of course, any safety lessons were also unintentional, but they are there if we take the right view. I did and here are the five things I found.

Dorothy’s journey would not have been possible without her companions; the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and Toto. The Wicked Witch of the North provided the conflict. It’s in this cast of unusual characters that I found these safety lessons.

  1. The Scarecrow: He wants a brain and receives a diploma from the wizard…or maybe he just needed the knowledge. The knowledge to understand and recognize hazards specific to the work environment including; what can happen and how bad could it be if it does happen. Our challenge as safety professionals (and operations managers) is to turn this knowledge into action that is instinctive. Intuitiveness does not present itself solely based on initial or annual recurrent training. The question we have for the scarecrow is, “now that you have a diploma, what will you do with it?” The companion safety question is “now that we have developed safety procedures and delivered training, what will we do with it?” How will we make it instinctive? Having well written procedures, protocols, and training is a good start, but it’s reinforcing key training techniques through observation, inspection, communication and recognition that will make the necessary action instinctive.

  2. The Tin Man: He desires a heart and receives a ticking heart shaped watch…or maybe the understanding that short cuts thought to save time are not short cuts at all. This is evidenced when they lead to inefficiencies, poor quality, injuries or damages. After all, he does use a sharp tool for cutting and is exposed to the outdoor elements including rain that causes some mechanical issues (rusty hinges). The ticking heart shaped clock signifies that time is important, but time to spend with family and friends, and engaging in our favorite hobbies or activities are more important. Making the effort to do the job right helps to ensure we remain healthy so we can enjoy and take advantage of those times for the sake of our family, friends, and coworkers. Maybe it is simply the connection between safety and what is most important, that helps to remind us that safety comes from the heart.

  3. The Lion: He is in need of courage and receives a medal…or maybe just the authority and encouragement to speak up when confronted with a hazard, near-miss, or when a task feels unsafe. The medal signifies recognition of a job performed in a safe, efficient and high quality manner. It could also be in recognition of a specific behavior or accomplishment. Reward and recognition programs are probably the most underutilized tool in the safety tool box. Michael Labeouf in his book of the same name called recognition “The Greatest Management Principle in the World.” Dale Carnegie said of recognition in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Abilities wither under criticism and blossom under praise.” Encouragement is a much more effective teacher than disciplinary action which is unfortunately a tool we rely on far too frequently. The Lion needed courage and the medal provided encouragement and reinforcement.

  4. Wicked Witch of the North: Anyone who has seen the movie remembers her line “I’ll get you my pretty…and your little dog too.” The witch reminds us that there are obstacles that are seemingly out to get us every day. Obstacles that hinder safe performance reveal themselves as changes in the work environment including; changes in people, tools or equipment, and weather. As safety professionals, we must recognize and be prepared for those changes before they happen. Being prepared starts with the understanding that something will change and with that change new hazards will follow. We can’t and shouldn’t codify every procedure, but we can approach every day, every task or job with the understanding that there will be changes that elicit new hazards, and be prepared to take a “time out” to adjust when we see that change.

  5. And what about Dorothy? What can we learn from her? The importance of a mission, a goal, persistence, and team work. Dorothy’s goal was to find the Wizard of Oz in order to achieve her mission of returning to Kansas. It should be noted she never wavered. Dorothy achieved her goal but not without a little help from her friends. She had Toto, her faithful black Cairn Terrier who goes to get help when Dorothy is captured. How did she convince her team to “buy into” her goal? Her companions didn’t just jump on the Dorothy bandwagon. She connected her goal with something that was important to each of her companions, i.e. join me on my journey to the Emerald City and the wizard will give you a brain, you a heart, and you courage. It was Dale Carnegie who said in his book from the same era How to Win Friends and Influence People, “The only way to influence the other person is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.” Connecting safety to what employees want most (family, friends, coworkers, hobbies, pets, etc.) will improve our chances of getting their “buy in” on our mission and goals.

We find out as the movie unfolds, that they had what they thought they didn’t all along; the Scarecrow always had a brain, the Tin Man always had a heart and the Lion always had the courage, and Dorothy always had the ability to return home to Kansas. They just didn’t know it, or needed someone to remind them. This is especially true when changes arrive and we are faced with new obstacles or hazards in the work place or off the job. Lastly, a little recognition and reinforcement can go a long way.

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