Increasing Safety Confidence

Real, not overblown, self-confidence is a good thing, right? When it comes to safety, true confidence essentially means trusting that the tools, PPE, training and work methods provided are actually beneficial and accessible, that you can rely on them to up your odds of performing tasks as safely and effectively as possible, and further, for a worker to trust themself, that they know well enough and remember how to use these to protect themself from injury while working.  

Safety confidence is self-reassuring, echoing an internal validation that their training and embraced procedures can make a real difference between their, say, pulling away from a potentially unsafe task before something bad happens (like stopping to take the time to find and then correctly using a lifting aid or training method) rather than just proceeding the same old higher risk way, especially being mindfully alert to changes in the environment and themselves, where new hazards emerge or fatigue or recent personal hampering limits or changes how they can actually perform.  

Safety self-confidence also has cultural elements, such as being willing to potentially tick off a supervisor or co-workers for slowing down production by calling out an over-the-top risk or diverting time towards accessing the right PPE.  

Self-confidence seems to be valued by almost everyone—at least for themselves. But what about others having greater safety and self-confidence? Leaders might squarely consider if they even want to help others become more self-confident about their own safety. After all, in my opinion, this smacks squarely in the face of a long history of safety paradigms and practices, much of which were founded on the principle that the best way to motivate worker safety is just the opposite, to ramp up their fears of dire vulnerability, scare them to comply and convey stomach-turning videos/pictures/stories of what might very likely happen to them if they don’t firmly follow policies and procedures without question. And above all, to make sure they don’t drift into complacency, the parent of inattention-driven incidents.  

So isn’t instilling “healthy fear” into workers critical to their acting safer? Best keep others off-balance to motivate ever-on wariness, safer decisions and actions?  

Counterpoint: First, if leaders indeed aspire to have greater self-confidence for themselves, why would they endeavor to undermine this quality in others (other than out of the insecure desire to control them)?  

Second, if heightening fear as the prime safety motivator was successful, aren’t leaders running the risk of creating a weaker, less agile, low-creativity workforce? (As Pierre Brocville, then worldwide corporate Safety Director of Schlumberger, told me, “If you treat people like donkeys, all they can do is bray.” Or Gary Vaynerchuk’s post on LinkedIn, “Fear Kills Growth.")  

Thirdly, I’ve noted there are rebound consequences to spreading negative Nellie safety stories—from actually encouraging some to tune out (i.e., a kind of complacency) to losing leadership credibility (as lyrics in a Duncan Sheik tune go, “She’s no ray of sunshine, so mostly she’s alone”). Being a merchant of doling out fear can create negative let’s-avoid-the-safety-nerd-with-his-wimpy-doom-and-gloom associations. And side by side with loss of credibility is diminishing influence.  

Too much “confidence” really isn’t. Overconfidence is blindness to what potentially can go wrong or an unwillingness to accept they're actually potentially vulnerable or not understanding likely repercussions from an incident.  

For example, I’ve known of some who refuse to wear a seatbelt, believing that they were such good drivers that their reflexes would pull them out of any close call. And besides, they didn’t want to be trapped. Overconfidence ironically leads to complacency, which blinds us to the threats from changing situations, or from below-the-radar mounting problems, like straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back cumulative trauma-induced strains and sprains.  

I’m not in the least suggesting we go to the extreme of ignoring/not communicating potential negative consequences. Just that, like all things, balance is key here. Yes, most safety leaders understand that overconfidence, usually equating this with mentally minimizing all-too-real risks (“Won’t happen to me. I mean, never has.”), can morph into complacency, not looking out for real risks or disregarding those that are seen. So it is important to point out a continuum of possible negative consequences, to wake up those to what actually might happen to them—but not leaping just to the worst-case scenario. Not wearing safety shields might result in loss of an eye but what’s more likely—so people are also more likely to resonate with this—is a temporary but really uncomfortable particle in the eye.  

To heighten safety confidence, don’t overload the safety communication balance beam on the side of fear. Perhaps reduce (or eliminate) horrific “high-impact” posters or devastating videos? Emphasize what the organization is committed to doing to elevate worker safety while also clearly communicating where organization controls can’t reach, so individual decisions and actions have a much larger (if not total) part to play.  

We’ve found from decades of our training trainers to convey personal mental and physical methods for considerably preventing soft-tissue injuries and slips/trips/falls that it’s essential that these catalysts develop the confidence in these methods—that they’ll work and that when they share and reinforce their use among their peers, the latter will embrace, not reject them, and ultimately, that line workers and senior managers will heighten their confidence for these easily learned techniques and strategies they can readily employ to keep themselves (and loved ones) safer everywhere.  

The ways to boost safety self-confidence are many, from reminding them to remember what they’ve already done that’s worked to keep them safer to asking “Where and when have you done something to turn a potentially significant incident into a near miss? And where have you seen possible future hazards that you were able to sidestep/avoid entirely? Have you ever helped remind others to prevent a possible problem?” to help them discover and thereby prove to themselves that a safety method or PPE works for them (to make up their own minds by trying it on for themselves).  

Moving towards the highest planes of safety performance and culture requires elevating others’ safety and self-confidence along with heightening safety awareness of potential hazards and consequences. 

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - February March 2023

    February March 2023


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