Safety Leadership: We’re Focusing on the Wrong Things

PostedsAfter a presentation I gave recently a gentleman came up to ask some follow-up questions, which is pretty normal. But then something interesting happened. He hesitated, looking like there was something else on his mind. So I asked if there was anything else I could help with to which he responded with a story about how he’s working with this site’s safety committee to develop an incentive program to get people to work safely. But it doesn’t seem to be working. Workers aren’t really engaging with the program and the rewards don’t seem very interesting to them. He wanted to know if I had any ideas on how to make the program more successful.

Now, I certainly have some ideas on the subject, but I asked the first (probably rather obvious) question that came to my mind – have you asked the workers about it? After all, what I think is interesting or engaging is not really the point. What he was after is what they think. What’s more, as we continued the discussion, you could then begin to ask your workers what would help them work more safely. The proverbial light bulb went off in this gentleman’s head and he went away hopefully with more questions than answers (in a good way).

What was so interesting to me about this interaction is how classic it is to how safety leaders in organizations approach problems with workers:

  • We identify a problem in the organization
  • We observe workers working unsafely (which usually means violating some procedure or rule)
  • We create an intervention designed to alter the decision-making process of those workers, such as a stronger disciplinary policy or, in this case, an incentive program
  • Then when it doesn’t work, we ask for help from outside to come diagnose the problem

This is normal practice for a lot of organizations, but the problem is that we aren’t dealing with a broken piece of equipment here. We’re dealing with real live, thinking people.

Now this is not going to be just another one of those “get your workers involved” posts (that will come later). Obviously we would want to get workers involved, but there’s something more fundamental, more insidious underlying the above approach – it’s the idea that safety is merely about stopping people from doing unsafe things.

Think about it. The underlying theory that guides the approach to behavioral intervention that most organizations use is that our systems are basically safe, it’s just that people muck it up by doing the wrong things. If we could only get our workers to stop doing the wrong things (violating rules, making errors), then we would have no accidents. Safety is a people problem. People are the problem we have to control through safety interventions.

But wait, didn’t we say we were dealing with real living, breathing people here? Yes, and here’s why that matters – no one wants to get hurt. Let me say that again in a different way to make this very clear – every single person in your organization cares a lot about safety. There’s a nasty rumor going around that the key to excellent safety performance is to motivate workers to care more about safety. But your workers already are motivated to be safe! They have skin in the game, literally! If they did something, they did it because they thought it was safe to do.

Read that last statement again. People don’t intentionally do unsafe things. This means our attempts to convince them to be safe are misguided. They already think they are doing what is safe (or, at least, safe enough)! But obviously we can think of many cases where someone did something that was just far too risky and got hurt. So how do we manage this?

As the great human factors pioneer, Jens Rasmussen, points out:

If you don’t understand why it made sense for people to do what they did, it is not because they were behaving really strangely, bizarrely or erroneously. It is because your perspective is wrong.

Or, as Stephen Covey says – seek first to understand, then to be understood. Once we begin to change our perspective we start to see that rather than focusing on what people are doing wrong, the failures, we should instead be focusing on success. People are driven to achieve success, avoid failure, and adopt strategies designed to achieve their goals in context. Often this involves balancing competing goals or dealing with scarce, inadequate resources, not to mention varying work conditions. Most unsafe acts are by-products of the performance adjustments workers make to help achieve success. The people aren’t the problem, it’s the complexity and imperfection of your system. Tweet This! 

Therefore, safety leaders should be focusing less on merely stopping people from doing the wrong things and focusing more on helping people be more successful. This means identifying those things that get in the way of success. What do our workers have to overcome in order to get the job done? What makes success difficult? Focus your energy on that (and note that this is very different than searching for traditional hazards and risks). Create a path of least resistance toward the desired outcome (not process). Safety is the process that will emerge from this.

To get started with this, go out and start talking to your workers. Ask them some simple questions, like:

  • What’s something that makes this job/task difficult?
  • What’s something that you have to overcome or put up with in order to get this job done?
  • When was a time you had to take a shortcut to meet a production goal?

If you do this in an environment of trust and psychological safety you’ll be amazed at what you find out. Then, if you act on what you learn you’ll not only begin to make your workplace safer. You’ll likely increase productivity and trust in the bargain!

Ron will be hosting a free webinar in partnership with Intelex on July 28th, 2016 entitled “How to create sustainable performance and achieve organizational goals through safety”. Here, he will discuss how health and safety professionals can create sustainable safety cultures. Register now!

Ron Gantt is Vice President of SCM. He has over a decade experience as a safety leader and consultant in a variety of industries, such as construction, utilities and the chemical industry. Ron has a graduate degree in Advanced Safety Engineering and Management as well as undergraduate degrees in Occupational Safety and Health, and Psychology.

Ron is a Certified Safety Professional, a Certified Environmental, Safety and Health Trainer, and an Associate in Risk Management. He was named by the National Safety Council in 2013 as a Rising Star in Safety, and winner of the Young Talent sponsorship in 2015 by the Resilience Engineering Association. 


24 thoughts on “Safety Leadership: We’re Focusing on the Wrong Things

  1. There is so much wrong in this this post. My key argument is “workers do do unsafe things’ They do them often even when ‘safety things’ are given to them. Like using a box to stand on instead of getting the approved work ladder (which was too much of an effort to get) and yes I have investigated this exact incident. There was no good reason to just stand on the box and it was safety topic discussed not long ago. The only reason the worker “thought” it was OK was his perception of risk was flawed…and we wonder why we cannot trust workers to not harm themselves. Lets make it very clear…’People do intentionally do unsafe things’ on every level within an organisation. People dare often the problem as self preservation is often overruled by lazyiness.
    I always used to ask workers what the worst job was and or job that was made harder because of safety topics – sadly, in most cases their complaints/annoyances could not be addressed as OHS laws owned the rights to the control methods …let me just say that again, as this is a new phrase; OHS laws owned the rights to the control methods. What i am saying is that the safety controls and or methods were not a choice the organisation or anyone in that organisation could have a say on.

    Let me also make a point that in most workplace activities/tasks that do not have any rules/procedures that govern work…incidents often still occur. I’d seen this mostly in construction where people followed their own methods as where not required to produce any procedures. In this example we have people doing things the way they wanted and yet still put themselves into harms way and got hurt. Again, I had to investigate an incident with a contractor who dropped a large 40kg paver on his foot and the edge of the paver crushed his foot above the steal cap. There is no law on carrying pavers, so it was faster to have one person carry the pavers instead of two. Here is the thing…the worker had access to a purpose built paver carry handle made for two person use (the company made them as were safety focused) but did not use it as said he rather carry it on his own!, Guess what, the business owner had to fit the cost of this incident – why, because a worker choose unsafety. show less

    So when we say “Therefore, safety leaders should be focusing less on merely stopping people from doing the wrong things and focusing more on helping people be more successful” we have to consider that stopping people form choosing can in most cases provide safety. At the end of the day, the owners of the business own the safety and duty of care of all workers…and since there is no Risk Waiver form that takes this obligation away from the owners of care…we must keep that in mind. So, if we want to follow the ideas of what Ron is talking about, we have to look at the laws first and protect business owners against workers who have very different views on how things should be done… Until then, practice simple Risk Management principles (which includes consultation with workers) and you will have your safety and eat it as well…

  2. I have read Ron’s blog and have several suggestions and comments. The article makes me think and that is good. I like what is being said, but have some suggestions. I first want to address the idea of incentives. Generally incentives do not work. To begin there is something wrong with the idea of rewarding/paying someone to work safely. They should already want to work safety when they arrive at work. One thought is to ask the worker what they want. In my mind that will not work because and frankly, they do not know what they want to work safely.

    We need to take a couple of steps backward to get an understanding. The average worker comes to work because they want to earn a living to pay bills. They will do pretty much what the boss wants done to remain in the workforce. I do not necessarily agree that every single person in the organization cares a lot about safety. They may care about their safety, they do not want to get hurt and be off the job; nor do they care a great deal about their co-workers safety so long that it does not impact them.

    I agree that people do not intentionally do unsafe things. It happens because of a lack of awareness. This often occurs when doing the same job over and over again, or by being distracted. There is no need to think so the mind wanders to the up and coming vacation, or the fun time they had with the kids last week on their vacation. As a result there is a loss of awareness. So one key element is to find a way to make people aware of their safety on an on going basis. I once interviewed an hourly person and asked how important is your safety to you. He answered, “It is as important to me as it is to my supervisor.” That one sentence spoke volumes to me! If safety was not important to his supervisor it was not important to him; and he would carryout unsafe activities to keep his job, WOW.

    If a safety program fails it is important to the organization’s safety group and management, and to a far lesser extent is it important to the hourly workforce. The work force just expects a new program in the future that they will do as they do their job. So what is the bottom line; the hourly workers look upon safety as something management does and they follow to keep their job. Granted there are exceptions, but they are not the mainstream.

    So the answer, at least in part, lies in improving safety awareness on an ongoing basis, make the safety effort every bodies focus so if a program fails everyone fails and establish a, “My brothers keeper, no fault culture.” Nice words, not easy to do; but certainly doable! I shall be happy to discuss the “How to make it happen” if you wish.

  3. Thanks for the comment Dr. Marchensani. I absolutely agree on incentives. It’s much more important to understand the incentives that already exist in the organization than to manufacture new ones. (Although I do disagree with the idea that people are already paid to be safe.)

    I respectfully disagree with many of your points though. I think a crucial statement in your comment is this:

    “If a safety program fails it is important to the organization’s safety group and management, and to a far lesser extent is it important to the hourly workforce.”

    That should be very alarming to management and safety professionals. Why? Because who should care more about a safety program than the hourly workforce? Seriously, they are the ones who are most likely to be injured if that program fails. They are the ones who have to actively manage risks when we fail to do so. When we give them poorly written procedures, competing goals, inadequate training, production pressures, insufficient tools, they have to find a way to get the work done without getting hurt. And the crazy thing is that they do it most of the time without hurting themselves or anyone!

    Give the above, I strongly disagree with the idea that workers only think “safety” is something management does. If that’s true then our definition of safety is wrong! Workers don’t not care about “safety”, they don’t care about our definition of “safety”, because our definition of safety bears no resemblance to the realities they face on a daily basis while they are getting the work done. That should be embarrassing to us.

    Unfortunately, what really happens is that the above creates cognitive dissonance in us, so we tend to reconcile the competing beliefs of “I really want to make my workers safe” and “My workers don’t care about the things I’m doing for them” to become “my workers don’t care about safety”, thus absolving us of responsibility for making the changes in our beliefs. We are no longer the problem. They are.

    Which leads to the idea that we need to increase safety awareness. I would agree if we were talking about the need to increase awareness of what it takes to create safety at the front line and how workers are actively creating safety daily in spite of imperfections in our system. If we’re talking about why people take behaviors that we think are too risky, I would draw attention back to the quote by Rasmussen above. Sure there is a place for distraction or for getting bored in the discussion. But notice how no one talks about how we created an environment where we require a person to shut their brain off in order to safely perform work (see the book Why We Work by psychologist Barry Schwartz for a great discussion on this point). Again, we point the finger at the worker, but we don’t ask the question “why is it hard to pay attention in this area?” These sorts of questions lead to more sustainable solutions than simply asking for people to apply more effort all the time.

    Finally, I agree that we want an organization where people are looking out for one another (the “brother’s keeper culture” you referred to), but I would ask where that care for one another comes from if workers really only care about what affects them and do not care about their co-worker as you suggest? It seems to me that the motivation to care is already there (I would argue that the care is already there as well), all we need to do is tap into it and create the conditions where the innate care can flourish. Look at the conditions/policies that are hindering this. Create an environment that brings out the best in people and you will create a more sustainable, resilient organization.

    Thanks again for the comment. Happy to hear your thoughts on any of the above!

  4. In my on-site experiences of over 7 years in the Retail space, I learned the hourly workers are very frustrated with Corporate level people believing they are not able to think and do not care, and scared to speak up because they are reprimanded for speaking to Corporate people.

    Here is what happens on the worker side; They say something to a you, a Corporate person, you mention the conversation to the Manager who then tells their supervisor. The worker is taken into a private place with no union rep – in our workplace is was the fridge – and told to not speak to corporate ever again or they, the worker, will find life “difficult”.

    An example of “Difficult”; your weekly hours are reduced from 28 hours to 15 hours for several weeks, which makes feeding your household and pay all bills very stressful.

    Perhaps when the worker responded “It is as important to me as it is to my supervisor.” there was an underlining message to be heard.

    Managers and supervisors manipulating and pressuring their workers to be quiet is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, in many workplaces, before you can openly engage with workers.

    • Tamara,

      Your post is quite interesting and I think it may reflect years of carry-over attitudes from the principles of Scientific Management. At one time, Scientific Management seemed to be the best way to make organizations more efficient and effective. It was management’s job to design and plan, and the worker’s job was to execute the plans without the need to adapt or provide feedback. However, the world is much more complex and organizations are complex adaptive systems. With so many interdependent parts and so much interactivity in the way work is performed small changes can have large impacts. When we don’t listen to workers we may be missing key opportunities to develop resilience in our organizations. Workers often can come up with a solution to a problem to make work safer and more efficient if they are given the opportunity to provide feedback. Another important point to note is that if we want worker input then we must provide them with some form of feedback or they will likely stop providing input. Supervisors and managers may not be able to implement every suggestion made by an employee, but a “thank you” as Rosa mentioned can go a long way, and at least closing the communication loop with feedback to the worker regarding the status of the recommendation is essential to the process.

      • thank you Randy.

        I have never heard of Scientific Management style. Can you share when this style was implemented?

        I did a bit of research on this and found its peak of influence came in the 1910s and 1920s by Frederick Winslow Taylor who view of workers that the common worker is not very intelligent and was also known for comparing them to animals… ??? is this correct 0_0

        – am I looking at the right one?

        • That’s the one Tamara. Taylorism is the foundation of most organizational structures – determine the one best way to do the job, and create accountability structures to make sure workers follow that one best method. This includes training, procedural controls, observation and reinforcement (usually punishment). The implication is that workers cannot figure it out on their own and need managers to tell them how to do the jobs.

          • Ok that explains a lot about the perception of some managers over the past over 20 years of my work life.

            So… I am thinking that is where the whole “your paid to DO, not think” concept came from.

            Now I fully understand why workers in Retail run about saying “We’re not paid to think”

            I can so see where this mentality would get a business into trouble.

            It would seem we are dealing with a concept that has been cognitively programmed into work environments for about 100 years.

      • “Another important point to note is that if we want worker input then we must provide them with some form of feedback or they will likely stop providing input.”

        This is just such an important point that I wanted it to be seen again. If managers started to get this, that alone would go a long way to building trust in organizations.

  5. Ron, you obviously hit a chord. Keep up the good work! : ) The whole idea of asking the workers what is important to them is not to say that incentives are important. It is to let people know that you care about them and what’s important to them. That is the highest form of recognition and incentive known to man. If you do your homework you will often find out that “thank you” is what employees most want to hear. This comes from a recent survey I did.

    • Rosa, that is so true!

      So many times the workers would say just that. How hard is it to say “thank you” once in a while.

      I would love to hear about your recent survey results, if your open to sharing.

  6. A fantastic article Ron and I saw a lot in there that I agree with. Interestingly, I also saw a lot I agree with in the subsequent responses! And really that’s not so surprising. Having worked in the aviation industry as a safety professional for over 40 years, one thing I’ve learned is that safety is very much a shared responsibility. There is an onus on all levels within the organisation to ensure that the operation is safe. The one factor that will scuttle it all though is if the culture (which is set by management) isn’t conducive to safety. In these circumstances, the efforts of those trying to make it safe will be of limited value. If, however, the senior team actively create a positive safety culture, then the rest of the team can do their part. This requires the correct Learning Culture (where the company learns from its mistakes and trains people on rules and procedures), an Information Culture (where safety information is shared across the company), a Reporting Culture (where people are encouraged to report concerns, events and near misses), a Flexibility Culture (that recognises that efficiency is often the enemy of thoroughness) and a Just Culture (where acceptable and unacceptable behaviours are identified and people only punished for gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts). Once you’ve got this right, then the natural desire to “be safe” that lives in everyone of us will manifest itself.

    • Good comment Peter. I see the Reason model of a Just Culture in your comment! I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I just have two points to add. First, learning should not only happen from failure. A learning culture understands that accidents happen as a result of normal performance variability (as people trade-off efficiency and thoroughness, as you noted). Put another way, people’s attempts to achieve success sometimes lead to failure. That means success and failure have the same cause, so learning from success can give us as much value as learning from failure (assuming we have the same access).

      Second, in a real just culture the most important question is ‘who gets to draw the line?’ When we identify those ‘negligent’ or ‘willful’ acts, who gets to make those determinations? In my experience it is often people separate from the work context, who also have a stake in the determination (e.g., managers, supervisors, etc.). This violates our sense of what ‘justice’ is in a society, specifically the right to be tried by a ‘jury of our peers’. So, if you make a determination of negligence, I believe that determination should be made by those who do the same task as those who are being judged. To do anything else seems to conflict with our societal views of a just system and I don’t see why it would be any different in an organization.

  7. Ron,
    This is great stuff and exactly what I am trying to implement at our company. I was an hourly worker for 10 years, then a shift supervisor, a plant manager and now I work in safety. I’ve been the worker who stands on a chair rather than getting a ladder. Was I intentionally trying to get hurt? No.
    We had a conveyor belt with the only way to lock out at the very top. Often times people would simply pull the emergency stop rather than hike to the top to disconnect it. This was a clear violation and extremely dangerous. The reason they did this was not because they were lazy or stupid. It was a calculated risk. As management we could have set up a camera and enforced the rule-giving people time off or firing them. We could have made an incentive system. Instead, we put in a second disconnect at the bottom of the conveyor–a simple solution that came from the workers. It is easy to say “take the time to do it right”. It is not so easy when you have been climbing up and down stairs and inclined conveyor belt walkways constantly for the last 9 hours. At some point a person makes a poor choice not because they are bad or doesn’t care about safey, but because it is the only reasonable choice in their mind.

    I believe that people don’t do things to be unsafe–as if there is some solid line between safe and unsafe. People analyze the risk and work as safely as they need to be in order to get the job done. If we disagree with where they draw the line, we need to work together to find a solution that complies with laws AND works for the worker.

    • “It was a calculated risk.” this is an excellent way to put how the workers think. Also the need to engineer safety into the workplace design is very important concept over looked when creating the work-space, or installing equipment.

    • Excellent comment Dave! The irony of course is that we blame workers for taking “calculated risks” but that’s exactly what managers do when they design work processes that include risks. (The only difference is that it’s someone else’s life that they are risking.)

      And the “take time to do it right” is so funny to me, because why can’t we take the time to design a machine that makes it easy to maintain and operate? We can’t be bothered to take the time to make it easy for people, so we force them to take the time and then we’re confused and frustrated when they don’t.

      Keep up the great work!

  8. Nice job on the article Ron, and a valuable resultant discussion. There is a fundamental schism in the safety profession between those traditionalists who still view safety as basically controlling workers until they are compliant with rules and those that view the systems and culture of the work environment more fundamental to safety progress. The traditional view relies on the old and highly disputed theories of Taylor (Principals of Scientific Management) and Skinner (Science and Human Behavior) as well as Heinrich’s conclusions that the vast majority (88%) of incidents are caused by unsafe acts. More modern and compelling contrary arguments from safety and management thinkers from Dekker to Deming are conveniently ignored. One explanation for this adherence to the traditional view is an enormous and highly influential industry that markets their various awareness, incentive and behavior modification products based on these theories that worker control and compliance is the essence of safety.

    Making the safety effort all about worker shortcomings is a temptingly simplistic way to divert attention from the more complex, and often embarrassing, reality of organizational deficiencies. Unfortunately management is often content to focus on “getting workers to behave” as opposed to dealing with more deep seated organizational issues. Confronting organizational deficiencies could, after all, indicate that the company and its management, not just the workers, need to do something differently. As a result we have oversimplified complex causation factors and put incident rates and personal behavior modification at the center of our safety efforts. You can inspect in, observe in, enforce in or incentive in worker compliance, for a time, but these efforts are unsustainable and generally quite expensive. There are better approaches that put continuous safety (not just behavior) improvement as the goal. I have quite a bit more to say on this topic in an article scheduled for publication in Professional safety this October.

  9. Great read, thank you. Food for thought and something to invest in.

    Makes me think a little of the impact of behavioural safety… change the behaviour of management and the workers will follow the path to the safe working environment. (Your words, just my interpretation!)

    • Thanks Vossie. Management is key and they often have a lot more influence than they think they do. The key though is to get management to see themselves not as those who is over the workers, but as those who enable the workers to do the work. Safety is not something management should have to force or even manipulate workers to do. Once management sees this they will begin to see the barriers in place in the organization that are holding workers back.

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