Changing Culture Through Changing Minds
To improve safety culture, help employees find their motivation to stay safe.
- By Edwin Zalewski
- Nov 08, 2023
Applying a bit of psychology can help increase employee support for safety and improve your safety culture. Safety professionals should understand why some employees ignore safety rules and why others consistently follow them. Getting all workers to choose safety makes the safety professional’s job easier. Rather than trying to force employees to follow safety rules, help them find their own motivation for choosing safety.
To help employees make the right choice, demonstrate how safety benefits them. Give them action items to follow and point out that you all share the goal of preventing injuries. Explain that although the company pays the costs of injuries, employees pay the price, and serious injuries could prevent them from enjoying life outside work. The following offers ideas for encouraging more safety involvement.
Taking employees along on walkaround hazard assessments helps them understand the “why” behind safety rules. Show them what kind of hazards you look for, what kind of hazards you find, and how those hazards put them at risk. This shows them why safety matters and how it affects them.
For example, if you see a blocked fire exit, point out how it could cost lives during an evacuation. Seeing real-world situations helps employees understand that unsafe behaviors and safety violations could affect their lives.
Giving Action Items
To encourage more employee involvement, give them more “to do” items. Safety rules often include a lot of “do not” instructions, but that doesn’t tell employees how to participate. In one sense, this is like telling them, “Don’t get hurt,” which isn’t helpful.
Increase their “to do” list by changing how you deliver information. For example, instead of saying, “Do not block the exit” you might say, “Make sure the exit is always clear. If something is blocking the aisle, remove it and report it.” This provides a specific action item while teaching them to identify and address hazards. They can then begin taking responsibility for their own safety.
Many safety professionals struggle with complacency, which often manifests as a “nothing bad will happen” attitude. To address this, make risks “real” rather than hypothetical. Safety professionals know that risk is a function of probability and severity. A potentially severe outcome (like an amputation) demands greater precautions even if the probability is low.
Workers who never experienced a serious incident may focus on probability. They might work for years without injury even while ignoring safety rules. However, equipment failures or distractions can happen. Every worker who got injured thought nothing bad would happen. If a serious injury or fatality occurs, everyone suddenly understands the reality, but the tragedy already happened. Explain that you want to avoid this.
If an employee never got hurt and doesn’t know anyone who got injured, the risk seems low. Also, the longer employees engage in risky behavior without consequence, the more likely they are to underestimate the risk. This is why experienced workers often take the most risks. Explain that a low probability does not equal low risk.
Making Risks Real
If you ask employees to make a list of people they don’t want to see injured, they probably won’t include themselves. They’ll take risks that they don’t want friends or family to take. Help them understand that their friends and family don’t want them taking risks. To help employees understand the potential consequences, try these suggestions from safety professionals who developed creative and low-cost approaches.
- Ask workers to write letters to their families describing what they’d say if they were hospitalized or killed on the job. The professional who suggested this worked in construction and said the exercise helped employees understand that when they take risks, they aren’t the only ones who suffer the consequences.
- Ask everyone to bring in a family photo and add the caption, “This is why you stay safe,” then post the photos in their work areas. The professional who suggested this noted that employees report that looking at the photo every morning makes them think about safety. The photos help remind them that their children don’t want mom or dad getting hurt. If posting at workstations isn’t feasible, post the photos in the break room.
As another option, hold a safety meeting with simulated injuries to drive home the impacts, like making some employees wear an eye patch or taping fingers together. Let them experience the frustration of performing simple tasks with these limitations. Ask if they’re willing to spend weeks, months, or the rest of their lives with those limitations. Then ask if taking a risk (even one with low probability) is worth the potential consequences. Remind employees that nobody – not the company, their families, or their coworkers – wants them to pay that price.
Identifying safety advocates
Most employees never suffer serious injuries, but your company likely has some employees who got injured, experienced a frightening near-miss, or know someone who got seriously injured. If you can identify these employees and encourage them to share their experiences, they could become powerful safety advocates. Employees are usually more open to feedback from coworkers than managers. Also, a personal story of a one-in-a-million event can have more impact than a statistic showing a one-in-a-thousand risk of injury.
Ask these advocates to share their experiences during meetings and encourage them to approach coworkers if they observe unsafe behaviors. They’ll remind coworkers to follow the rules, but do so by offering encouragement, not by threatening to report violations.
Some employees regularly disregard the rules, but you can probably think of others who consistently work safely and report hazards. Ask what motivates them and encourage them to share their reasons. Responses like, “I wear hearing protection because my dad needs a hearing aid and I don’t want to end up like that” can encourage other employees to make the safe choice. Safety advocates lead from the middle by inspiring others.
Addressing Negative Attitudes
If you ever thought that someone needed an “attitude adjustment” toward safety, remember that attitude is a symptom of a deeper motive. Negative attitudes occur for many reasons like rebelling against authority or believing that safety slows production. Until you find and address the motivation, you can’t change the attitude.
For example, some employees choose not to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Demanding that they wear it may address the immediate situation, but it won’t make them choose to wear PPE in the future. Conversely, you might acknowledge that the injury probability is low, then describe the potential injuries that could occur. Ask employees to consider the impacts of those injuries. If everyone shares a goal of avoiding injuries, using prevention measures should also be a shared objective.
Explaining Who Pays the Price
The company pays the costs of safety compliance, but employees pay the price for injuries. Hearing loss, amputations, serious back injuries, or eye injuries are all life-changing events, but they are all avoidable.
Employees need to recognize how safety benefits them and how ignoring safety hurts them. They should also understand the concept of risk, and why low probability does not equal low risk. Finally, they should understand that they can choose to keep themselves safe.
You could try to force employees to comply, but if you help them find their own motivation to stay safe, they’ll choose to work safely for their own benefit. Better yet, they’ll start looking out for each other. If keeping them safe is your goal, and avoiding injuries is their goal, you can work together to build a stronger safety culture.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.