Learning how to reduce accidents in the workplace can be challenging. Safety success can be as elusive to some organizations as the Loch Ness Monster or mermaids have been to men throughout modern history. While most companies desire a safe workplace, the true reasons they fail are quite compelling. In short, most companies treat symptoms while few really determine the cause of accidents. Too many organizations believe the disease of injury is superficial rather than a comprehensive infection of leadership in the workplace. Simply put, people do not desire to be injured, yet accidents continue to occur. Why?
Risky behavior is much more complicated than most managers realize. It is a complex reaction to stimuli in the workplace that is exacerbated by contradictory leadership. The true cause of most accidents is leadership or the lack thereof. Having trained thousands of front line employees in many industries, I have determined some common realities that simply cannot be ignored. The following seven observations, while not exhaustive, manifest themselves repeatedly when helping organizations achieve a true safety culture. If you place emphasis on these realities in any organization, you can identify opportunities to reduce accidents on the job.
- Most companies address risky behavior rather than the human reason behind the behavior. In other words they treat the symptom rather than the disease. There is nothing wrong with treating symptoms to gain short-term relief. However, the true illness is often not identified and treated when it comes to risky behavior. The most common reason I get for risky behavior is a perception that the employee wants to “get the job done”. If you can freeze a moment in time and make an analysis of the decision at the human level, things get very interesting. The person makes a split-second decision to behave in a way that supports the higher number of stimuli. If a supervisor constantly tells people to hurry for production while occasionally mentioning being safe, the dominant stimulus most often guides human behavior.
- Peer pressure is a neglected influence on human behavior. The need to be accepted is a primal need. The sense of belonging is powerful in that it reflects generations of human existence. Oxytocin in the brain is a powerful hormone that makes us feel good when we belong to a group. If a peer group utilizes risky behavior, the individual will often utilize the same behavior to gain acceptance. Most people do not desire to stand out among peers.
- Individuals take risk for both internal and external reasons. Both must be addressed to understand the true causation of behavior. While many exist, a common external reason for behavior is the direction of a supervisor. An implied belief is that risk will be tolerated as long as the objective is achieved. An internal reason for risk can be as simple as relief from physical stress. During the latter stages of a twelve-hour shift in a physically demanding job, the employee may be thinking of nothing more than getting finished and going home.
- The psychology of work and risk as identified by the Hawthorne effect and hypocrisy influence behavior. The Hawthorne effect states that we change our behavior if we think we are being observed. This intentional change in behavior can be leveraged by leadership to gain more safe behavior while minimizing risky behavior. Companies can also leverage hypocrisy by utilizing tools like safety committees and properly conducted behavior-based safety observations. Be careful, if improperly utilized or implemented, these tools can also result in the opposite effect. Just because a person can read and follow a manual on flying an airplane does not make them desirable as an airline pilot. The law of unintended consequences makes it very difficult for someone without detailed knowledge and experience to be successful.
- Consequences guide behavior. We learn at an early age that touching a hot stove will result in a burn. While most organizations do an adequate job of revealing negative consequences, most do very poorly at leveraging positive consequences. Most managers have been conditioned to focus on negative behavior while ignoring the positive. This backward reality is prevalent in far too many organizations. Humans are indeed animals. We respond more to positive reinforcement than the fear of negative consequence.
- Change is key to addressing risky behavior. Change is a process not an event. Simply telling someone to change behavior is rarely effective. Most behavioral change takes place over time. As a child of the seventies, I was not raised to wear seat belts. However, like most of us, it took time to become someone that always wears a seat belt. Change is mostly about influence and cognitive acceptance of new behavior and it does not happen at the same rate for everyone. Some people make the decision to change faster or slower than others.
- The perception of risk impacts our decision to accept or reject risky behavior. Small risk will not change behavior as much as large risk. In other words, our perception of risk is individual. We do not all see the same reality the same way. Some people are more risk tolerant while some are more risk averse. Additionally, the frequency of risk will impact behavior. The brain makes adjustments to legitimize behavior that does not occur frequently. To put simply, we play the odds in a given situation to legitimize our behavior.
If you have read this far, you probably realize that human behavior is far more complicated that any policy or rule can address. I have merely skimmed the surface in order to provide you with succinct information. Accidents will occur in the best of organizations because of the complications of being a human. However, teaching managers and supervisors to understand why we choose one behavior over another can have a dramatic impact on reducing accidents in the workplace. The key to any successful attempt to improve safety on the job is the front-line supervisor. In my experience, most have never been taught the “why” of what we do and therefore make imperfect decisions based on imperfect information. They are constantly fighting the symptoms and never address the true disease. As a result, they are perplexed when accidents continue to occur. Safety is truly a leadership issue and must reach the DNA level of the organization to achieve success.