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Stay Safe

How a culture of safety leads to better outcomes (and a stronger team)

April 22, 2020
Many people wince when they’re told to follow orders. However, Karen Daw says that safety requirements are in place for good reasons, and understanding those reasons is a big step toward developing a culture of safety in your practice.

When I walk into a dental office, I can get a feeling of what it’s like to work there, for better or worse. It can be bright, professional, and empowering, or it can be dark, negative, and toxic. Workplace culture is the environment created for employees and embracing a culture of safety shows not only that everyone is serious about overall well-being, but that the results are undeniable.

Understanding the reasons

Many people wince when theyre told to blindly follow orders. This can be the case with a lot of governmental mandates, including when safety is concerned. However, these requirements are in place for good reasons, and understanding those reasons is a big step toward developing a culture of safety.

Ankur Gupta, DDS, a family dentist at North Ridgeville Family Dentistry in North Ridgeville, Ohio, and a practice management speaker, explains, “We have to understand why regulations exist. A lot of dentists and entrepreneurs in general look at regulations as if theyre all bad. Sometimes we create that culture when we say, Oh, the government makes us follow the rules with our radiation equipment, 'or The government makes us follow rules about workers’ comp,’ or ‘The government makes us follow rules about patient privacy.’ But if we were to take a step back and ask ourselves why these regulations exist, it’s to make workplaces safer.”

That idea helped Dr. Guptas team members realize a strong safety culture. “The reason that these regulations exist is to protect the patients and workers,” he says. What I found was that once we started looking at the regulations as things that were better for us as a business and for our workers and patients, then it became much easier to accept the small headaches that come with them.”

Mindset mode

For Dan Merker, DDS, a family dentist at Merker McAllister Dental in Zanesville, Ohio, being in the right mindset is critical. That’s why safety and safety training has always been a priority in his practice. Unfortunately, for those who don’t have this in place from the get-go, safety can be hard to achieve if bad choices have been a practice’s norm.

Managing the culture is something that had to happen 50 years ago,” Dr. Merker says. I exaggerate, but its something that you manage from the beginning of your practice. I dont think that if youre slacking and cutting corners that all of a sudden you say to your staff, OK, were not cutting corners anymore.’”

But what if a practice didn’t embrace that culture of safety early on and wants to change? Can it get back on track? Of course it can, but it requires some work. Dr. Merker compares it to a fast-moving freight train.

Im sure that you can turn that freight train around, but it will take a lot of time because theres a lot of momentum built up when youre running a managed care practice.”

Get help

There is a lot to manage in dental practices and some of the little subtleties may not be on the dentists radar. Thats where the help of an outside consultant can be especially helpful.

We often make decisions based on what we’ve always done,” Dr. Gupta observes. When someone comes along to challenge that operation, theyre usually met with resistance because in general, people like the way its always been done. As a practice owner, the most important thing is to establish whats right, as opposed to allowing your team to avoid any headaches.”

Because those who work in a practice are so close to whats going on, a fresh set of eyes can often help them see what needs to change. “Having someone guide you through the process may help you realize, Heres where the bar is and heres where you are relative to that bar,’” Dr. Merker says. Having someone like that is paramount to get to where you need to be because you can go to continuing education, you can do all those things, but it’s better to have somebody telling you not just, Heres what you need to do,’ but also Heres how you should do it.

Be open to accepting outside help, not just to identify opportunities for enhancement, but also to validate all that the practice is doing right. Keep communication lines open and encourage an open-door policy for staff to share suggestions related to safety. Lead by example, which is a tenant of good business practices. Doing something just because you’re told to do it will get the job done, but for best outcomes, embrace a culture of safety to take that commitment to a more professional level—a level you can feel when you walk in the practice. 

Karen Daw, “The OSHA Lady,” is an award-winning speaker, consultant, and author of articles and CE courses on safety in dentistry. She earned her BA from Ohio State University, and her MBA with concentrations in Healthcare Administration and Business Management. After graduation, Karen was recruited from the emergency department to her roles as assistant director of sterilization monitoring and health and safety director for the OSU College of Dentistry. She draws on her rich background to educate audiences on how to avoid penalties, negative reviews, and the 6 o’clock news! Learn more about Karen at karendaw.com.