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How to Start New Habits That Help Create a Safety Culture in Agribusiness

3 May 2022  •  Erin Hightower

Story written for CropLife and first appeared in April 2022

In the world of agriculture, safety is often a topic that comes up when it’s too late. We talk about safety after the smashed windshield, rolled tractor, or grain elevator entrapment (an accident statistic that rose by 53% in 2020). In other words, oftentimes we wait to talk about safety in a meaningful way after we’ve gone to the hospital or made the 9-1-1 call. What we need to do instead is make fewer of those visits and calls — but how? The answer might be found in taking a closer look at something as simple as pouring your morning coffee.

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading two books, “The Power of Habit” and “Atomic Habits.” I saw in my own experiences how I could work to reduce risk in ways such as not looking at my phone while driving or remembering to set the parking brakes in tractors. But I also saw that I hadn’t made those behaviors a habit, like how I start every morning. Each morning, I wake up, head down to the kitchen, and make a pot of coffee. I anticipate the smell and am rewarded when the coffee is brewed and ready for drinking.

That simple habit is something I anticipate, act, and am rewarded for every morning. It’s easy and I repeat it each day without fail. It got me thinking about habits and wondering: how can we make safety habits on farms just as easy as getting your morning joe?

Getting to the Safety Goal

A safe workplace is everyone’s goal for lots of good reasons. First, we all want to operate in an environment where we can do our work and not be burdened by the worry of whether we are going to be injured that day. Second, we know that beyond the loss and suffering accidents cause, they are also expensive. With every accident comes the risk of additional costs in terms of lost time on the job, healthcare costs, machine or facility repairs, and even workman’s compensation insurance. Finally, more accidents also generally mean that the teams aren’t functioning as well as they could be in other aspects of their jobs. Conversely, when employees believe that their employer is aiming to keep them safe, it unleashes better behaviors throughout that employee’s entire workday.

There are a lot of reasons we all want safety to be a priority. No farm has on their whiteboard in the shop “be less safe.” As it was once said to me, “the winner of the World Series, and the last-place team in the division, both started the season with the same goal.” The difference amounts to talent certainly but also in how each team customized their approach to pursuing that title. Every company should consider its own culture before implementing a program to help achieve its safety goals. Understanding some of the basics of behaviors may help formulate a winning approach.

1. Replace the old with the new. The Golden Rule of habit change is to identify the steps that lead to bad habits and replace them with new ones. In the book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg says that changing habits is about understanding the cue or signal that precedes the bad habit, keeping that initial cue, replacing it with a new routine, and seeing a new reward. The desired new behavior will eventually occur, as long as the individual feels a reward from the new habit. Individuals who do not receive benefits from the new habit will likely fall short of the expectations and give up.

I mentioned my morning coffee habit, which starts with the simple cue of heading into the kitchen. If I decided that habit wasn’t working for me anymore, I could come up with a different way of reacting to that cue – maybe brewing decaf for example – but would still need some kind of reward, such as the smell or taste.

To create a safe work environment, start by identifying which behaviors you or your team need to replace and what those replacement actions should look like. That is your ideal safety state and should provide you with a clear picture of where your team is heading.

2. Understand the cues. In our modern safety culture, understanding these cues is the key. They are the daily events that trigger us to behave a certain way. For example, one might either drive without a safety belt or maybe work in the display of the tractor while driving if their cue as they enter the vehicle is simply “it’s go-time,” implying there is no time for anything but getting to work. Changing the resulting behavior requires changing the reaction to the cue of “it’s go-time.” This might mean, in the case of the display, relying on your farm management team to have pre-populated the display so the operator is not managing the information and feeling mounting frustrations. In a case of a farm that I was dealing with, they used File Creator and created daily payloads on stick drives color-coded by operator. This allowed the operators to focus on driving, NOT the display.

This is an example specific to pre-planning, but other steps might be made simply by checking in or a “tag in/tag out” connected to the tractor key chain. As an aviator, I was taught from my first flight lesson that by putting the keys in the dash, I could keep someone from getting injured from a “hot magneto.” The habit has become so engrained that after flying for seven years, I have more than once locked my Jeep Wrangler keys inside the vehicle after instinctually setting them in the dash. A habit can be powerful and almost (comically so in my case) something that transfers to other parts of your day.

3. Consider the impact of “keystone behaviors.” A keystone habit is a habit that triggers other habit changes, like how exercise seems to trigger healthier lifestyle choices that aren’t even about exercise. Many safety behaviors are often thought of as keystone habits because they often mean that team members are making additional positive changes elsewhere. As the saying goes, “you know what goes good with a cup of coffee? Another cup.” What goes well with safety habits are more of them.

A farm I work with recently had a baler/tractor combo completely decimated in a highway accident. The operator did not have his belt on and ended up rolling into the floorboard and needed emergency extraction. The farm then started to focus intently on getting everyone to wear a seatbelt, and rightfully so. They implemented a new process, starting with a new cue. Getting into the equipment, every operator had to put on a belt, give two honks of the horn, and then they were free to leave. A new cue of “it’s go-time” meant that they couldn’t start their day until after they honked. This behavior was only reinforced by the peer pressure of knowing that everyone else was honking. Did some operators honk without putting on their belts? Probably, but reconsidering their cue, getting the reinforcement of others honking, plus the peer pressure of knowing that many did put on their belts, caused other operators to follow suit.

Beyond getting the desired behavior of wearing a seat belt, the farm also noticed their employees taking additional safety steps because of their new morning routine. Their seat belts' safety triggered positive actions all day long.

4. Lead from all levels. The potential downside to creating a safety culture is that you beat down employees with too much red tape. Creating safety stand-down meetings or check-in promises can all feel like good things until they become boring, cumbersome, and don’t produce the desired result. Actionable steps, on the other hand, are the types of real changes that will deliver an outcome. Those steps don’t always need to come from farm management but should come from all levels of employees.

In the example above, the farm management team first tried forcing their operators to wear a seatbelt with a visual safety check each morning. But the team members reacted negatively because they felt like they were being treated like kids. Plus, the new system wasn’t working because there wasn’t a reward or the reinforcements in place. The operators themselves came up with the new approach to honk when buckled. When it comes to new behaviors, management should look at everyone to take a leadership role.

Studies show it takes seven times of telling someone something (or soliciting, as I learned from my sales experience) before the follow-through will happen. Seven days of honking, combined with an occasional visual check, led to long-term changes.

Safe Habits Today Mean a Safer Tomorrow

What might seem a small change today, and a small change tomorrow adds up to a safety culture that is ingrained in all of us. And it starts with waking up to our bad habits and making a plan to change them. If you are like me, you like your safety culture just like your coffee: very strong.

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Erin Hightower

Erin Hightower has been working in farm planning and agronomy for 15 years. As an Agronomist at RDO Equipment Co., she works with team members and growers in the Northwest region, focused on education and training, and conducting field trials. She is a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Certified USDA NRCS Nutrient Management Planner, Certified Conservation Planner, and Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planner.

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