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Like any industry dealing with high-risk operations, chemical manufacturers pour large amounts of money into safety efforts via training, equipment, regulatory compliance and more.

But if you ask Joe Burton, the founder and CEO of a digital wellbeing, mindfulness and sleep training company called Whil, many companies are missing the mark on addressing the root cause of most catastrophic accidents: the human mind.

“To use a 'Star Wars' reference, we expect all employees to show up to work as though they were Luke Skywalker,” he says. “But more often we show up like Darth Vader…the dark side wins us over.”

To drive home his point, Burton conducted a quick poll with the audience at his keynote address at BP For Chemicals, hosted by SAP in Houston this month.

With a show of hands, he asked who in attendance was suffering from back pain, and then insomnia and finally, stress. About one-third of the audience raised their hands for the first two. For stress? Nearly every hand went up.

There are many factors contributing to what Burton calls a “constant undercurrent of stress” in the American workplace — from friction between the different age groups working together to high turnover to worries about offshoring. And when employees are distracted by stress and exhausted from not sleeping, it’s a problem with tangible and often dangerous consequences.

“When it comes to safety, studies suggest that even one bad night’s sleep can reduce motor skills by 3-4 seconds,” Burton says. This impairment can increase the risk of costly injuries.

In the last few years, more people have been using mindfulness to reduce stress and improve focus. Now, smartphone apps have made their way into companies to make it easy to maintain a mindfulness practice in the workplace as well, which can help boost worker safety.

The mindfulness sessions are different from doing meditation. Instead of long sessions involving complete stillness and the intimidating task of “quieting the mind,” Burton’s company, Whil, has developed more than 200 digital resiliency, mindfulness and sleep programs, each with five sessions that take five minutes a day. There are even sessions that only take a minute. For worker safety, Whil typically recommends that employees use 5-10 minute sessions, 3-4 times a week.

Whil's training system helps employees bring their attention back to work and the tasks at hand, which reduces the chance of an error being made by a wandering mind. Burton points out that these sessions can be particularly importantly when everything is going well.

“Utilities companies have found that about 90 percent of accidents happen on beautiful, sunny days,” he says. “It’s not when there’s a storm, because that’s exactly when the mind is alert and workers are more focused on the ways they can get hurt.”

As a special offer for Manufacturing.Net readers, Whil has passed along a free, three-month trial of its resiliency, mindfulness and sleep training. Check out this link to give it a try!

Burton also offered the following three tips for trying mindfulness to improve on-the-job safety:

Start The Day With Intention

When it’s time for the “gate meeting” where the crew comes together at the start of the day, Burton suggests taking a few minutes to bring the focus back to safety.

“Set the intention of, ‘We’re going to have a safe day today and we’re going to keep the thinking brain online,'” he suggests. Try kicking off the shift with a short mindfulness practice to calm and focus the mind and relax the central nervous system before starting work.

Do a Body Scan

Take a quick moment to mentally check in with your entire body and notice any sore or cranky spots.

“If you’re dealing with back pain, for example, it’s hard to focus,” Burton explains. In fact, Burton suggests that if you’re not feeling well or notice, for example, that a migraine could be coming on, you might want to avoid doing high-risk tasks that require a higher level of focus to perform safely.

Get Ready For The Next Day

The importance of sleep really can’t be overstated. But the tricky thing for insomnia sufferers (one-third of the U.S. population) is that once you’ve had a few tough nights doing more worrying than sleeping, your brain gets more efficient at being stressed.

“It’s actually training itself to get good at insomnia,” Burton says.

Using mindfulness before bedtime can be a good way to let go of anxiety and retrain the brain to relax so that you get some ZZZs.

Whil has also released a safety-focused eBook called “Situational Awareness For Employee Health And Safety.” Click here to download a free copy.

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