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Safety Fails

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 disease.  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 injuries 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.  Yes indeed, the true cause of most injuries is leadership or the lack thereof.  Having trained thousands of frontline employees in many different 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 injuries on the job.

  1. 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.
  2. Peer pressure is another 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.
  3. 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 aphysically demanding job, the employee may be thinking of nothing more than getting finished and going home.
  4. The psychology of work and risk as identified by the Hawthorne effect and hypocrisy also 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.
  5. Consequences also 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.

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