Muscle Memory, the Ancient Greeks & Your Safety Training

October 17, 2018
Risk Management

The blog title may sound more like a category on the game show, Jeopardy, than a training-related topic, but humor me.

Growing up playing sports, one of the things I learned was that the more I practiced, the more muscle memory I developed. Athletes who practiced often and mastered their sport, made remarkable strides.  

Even in the fire department, muscle memory was a factor, helping me to achieve heightened performance, without having to think about it. In an emergency situation, muscle memory allows the body to kick into a kind of “automatic” mode and function effectively, even when the mind doesn’t have time to analyze every detail that may be flooding in.

There’s a famous quote that illustrates the principal of muscle memory, “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

This quote is attributed to the Greek poet, Archilochus, and it basically suggests that the ability to succeed is not based on some divine superpower that people are born with, but rather, success is based on the human ability to train to the point, that when faced with a critical situation, the appropriate response has been practiced so many times, it becomes an immediate reaction without requiring any thought.

I bring this up because I was recently involved in an incident investigation that reminded me of how important recurring training is to employees and their well-being. The investigation was much like others I have been a part of, with managers making comments like, “what an idiot” or, “it’s common sense” or the worst, “you can’t fix stupid”. The reality is that employees only know what they know and the expectation that they will perform beyond their level of training is not only foolish, it can be catastrophic.  

Unfortunately, due to things like the aforementioned management attitudes, peer pressure and other factors, many employees do not ask for help in the workplace for fear of appearing stupid. As safety professionals we need to take a hard look at our safety training programs (and at our own attitudes regarding training) and ask some tough questions like:

  1. Does training cover all the hazards our employees may encounter in the workplace?
  1. Are we retraining/rectifying at the right intervals?
  1. Are field supervisor’s executing the program as planned?
  1. Do employees understand what is expected of them?  
  1. Are we using the most efficient delivery methods and best facilitators?  
  1. In the event of an incident, can we prove an employee/contractor completed appropriate training/orientation?  

The ancient Greeks recognized that the ability to “rise to the occasion” was a myth, and when faced with a critical situation, training was key to an individual responding appropriately to a situation, without having to stop and think about it. Maybe we should get on board.  

Josh Densberger

Josh began his career as a Firefighter for the Orange County Fire Rescue Department in Florida. He taught the principles of fire science and safety at Seminole State College. He held the position of Corporate Safety Director at Waste Pro, and is currently Corporate Safety Manager at MSE Group. Josh earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from The University of Wyoming and a Master’s degree in Fire and Emergency Management from Oklahoma State University.

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