Why Do Employees Choose to Get Hurt?
Despite having handled nearly 500 workplace fatalities, I once found myself hanging three stories from a gutter because I had wedged a piece of firewood under my ladder rather than taking five minutes to properly set it. Why does a skilled person with awareness of the dangers of cutting corners nonetheless take unnecessary risks?
"Nonchalance" is a greater hazard than a lack of training or experience. Seventy percent of the workplace fatalities I have handled were due to errors by well-trained employees. Some were driven by the desire to take care of the job as swiftly as possible. Others figured that they had successfully "done it before." Others apparently just didn't think.
Unsafe attitudes develop "incrementally.&" J. A. Rodriquez has explained how employees engage in "incremental rationalization" whereby they bit-by-bit justify ultimately disastrous final decisions. Rodriguez analogizes to our well-known incremental justification for violating our diet plans, in which the rationalization proceeds from "I know I shouldn't have it" to "maybe just this once" to "I deserve this," and so forth.
Evaluating Your Safety Culture
Every workplace has a "safety culture," which either encourages or discourages safe behavior. The problem is that we may not know if our culture is good or bad. As a first step, we should survey employees about their attitudes. We may not like what we learn. One survey of thousands of skilled craft workers found that 90 percent felt that the company was at risk of a death or serious injury because of: "un-discussable incompetence" of a co-worker or attitudes of "just get it done," "just this once," "this safety stuff is overboard," or "be a team player." Are you surprised to learn that two out of three of the surveyed employees then confessed that they would not address a co-worker's unsafe actions, such as a failure to tie off?
You already know that management establishes the safety culture through its actions. Yet how many of you are daily engaged in your safety processes and set the same sort of specific mile markers that you establish for production, cost control, or opening new markets? I have almost never met a CEO who did not sincerely believe that "safety is our number one goal," but this belief may show an ignorance of what's actually happening on the job site.
Employees also act unsafely because they are "involved," not "engaged." "Involvement" is taking part in safety activities. "Engagement" is taking ownership and doing things because the employee sees value; not because he or she has to do so. A "top down" approach to safety won't work. We must do more than establish safety committees. Involve employees in regular documented site walk-arounds, in developing Job Safety Analysis (JSA), presenting toolbox talks, planning safety recognition activities or investigating near-misses. As a side benefit, engaged employees tend not to file EEOC charges and create other work for employment lawyers. There are so many ways to involve and engage your employees in safety. I don't care which methods you use, but do so, and change them regularly to keep engagement fresh.
Employees act unsafely when safety planning is not integrated into work planning on a daily and even a task-by-task basis. How many construction employers effectively use a site-specific plan that analyzes hazards and responses for each sequence of work? If OSHA came on site, would they find a plan tied to daily toolbox talks in which employees actually discussed the specific hazards of that day's work? Would foremen just remind employees to "wear your fall protection,"or would there be discussion of how the endless rain or the independent contractor dump trucks created special hazards that day? Has this process become routine? Does the management participate? What about the manufacturing setting? Do employees conduct ergonomic analyses or complete JSAs?
Employees are more likely to act unsafely or ignore safety rules when working alone. At least one of you just said, "duh ... tell me something I don't know!" Fair enough, but what concrete steps do you take to encourage employees to briefly pause before each task to consider the safety hazards and the proper way to do the work? Let's go a step further....
Encouraging the Right Mindset
Employees get hurt because they do not maintain a "Job Hazard Analysis" mindset, especially when working alone or as part of a remote crew. Let’s start by recalling that even when employees are not working on your site under site supervisors, you still have some duties under the OSH Act to guarantee their safety, even if you are not present and do not control the site. It may not be feasible for an employer to send someone to inspect every site where employees work or make a delivery. Journeymen electricians and others are highly trained and accustomed to taking on the responsibility to access each site for hazards, but we regularly encounter skilled employees electrocuting themselves during routine jobs. Employees must conduct a basic "Job Safety Analysis" which requires them to pause, think about all hazards presented by the site and how to avoid them. Many workers now carry tablets or other devices, and may have to complete and submit a very basic hazard analysis before they can commence the work. They can "pencil whip" the process, but at least one builds and reinforces a habit of "pause and consider safety" before working.
Apply lessons learned from the recent focus on distracted driving in order to eliminate distractions in all work settings. Recent research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety ranked the extent to which certain activities affect drivers: listening to a radio (.21), listening to an audio book (.75), talking on a hands-free unit (1.27), talking on a hand-held (1.45), using a speech-to-text device (2.01) and doing complex math and memory tasks (4.0).
Lastly, eliminate "practical excuses" to act unsafely, such as where employees must use ill-fitting PPE that is uncomfortable or makes it harder to work. Many death fall incidents are related to such excuses. Involve employees in PPE selection.
Howard Mavity is a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the nation's leading labor and employment firms representing employers. He co-chairs the Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group.
Posted by Howard Mavity on Jul 10, 2013