Beyond Paternalistic Safety

Who likes to be constantly told what to do? Even the most obedient and docile among us wouldn't tolerate for long a situation where one doesn't have a say. Yet more often than not, that is exactly what happens when it comes to Safety in the workplace.

Nobody can deny the employer's responsibility when it comes to occupational safety. Being in charge of an operation, they must identify its hazards, assess the risks, and provide the means (both material and organizational) to mitigate them. In most countries laws have been passed and courts have ruled in line with this principle.

The employer is supposed to know best, to translate that knowledge into rules, and to enforce them. Like a benevolent parent, the employer (or its representative, the manager, whom we could then compare to the employee's big brother) is supposed to enlighten the employees with his experience for their own good. To make them understand what are the risks related to a given task and to explain them how to behave in order to remain safe.

That's all fine and good. But if you have children (or if you've ever been a child yourself) you know that parents sometimes struggle to have rules respected by their kids, even if such rules make perfect sense and are meant to protect them. Indeed, emancipation is one of deepest human instincts. During the entire history of mankind and all over the world, children becoming teenagers have sought to define themselves as individuals and reaffirm their personalities. We're all hardwired to become autonomous.

Many youngsters smoke, speed, and do other silly stuff just to prove this point; once we've reached adulthood (or we think we have) freedom of choice becomes one of our dearest values. At some point our personality matures, and most of us turn out just fine, coming to terms with the implicit social contract establishing both our rights and duties on the basis of mutual respect among fellow citizens.

And then we get a job.

So there we are back to square one, confronted by management schemes based on rules and discipline. Again, these constraints may very well be necessary in order to protect our own and other people's safety. But overconfidence bias makes most of us believe that we're in control of our safety. So managers-know-best/do-as-you're-told-or-else strategies are likely to be perceived as patronizing. Team members may feel that they're treated like kids again.

This may be OK for many people but definitely doesn't work for everybody. And even if they are a minority, a few individuals can do a lot of harm, both directly (taking inconsiderate risks to prove you wrong) and indirectly (bashing the leaders' best intentions of developing a Culture of Safety).

Management doesn't need to be paternalistic. Best leadership certainly shouldn't. Leading those who don't belong to your family circle is very different from parenting. The nature of the emotional bonds in play is obviously not the same. If trying to overly control your children – who in principle love you – can backfire into rebellion, one can only assume that such reaction is much more likely from your team members.

That being said, leaders must nevertheless strongly uphold and carefully balance the same underlying values that good parents demonstrate as they support their children through their personal development: chiefly, trust and accountability.

Besides some notable exceptions such as not being able to afford team members to just "learn from their mistakes" when these may have catastrophic consequences, there are a number of things that leaders can do to promote these values within an organization's culture. For example, leaders might refer to the brand new ISO 45001 standard, which includes a prominent chapter on workers' participation and consultation that provides a comprehensive list of ways of involving the team members in their organization's safety management.

Among those, I consider having workers first actively contributing in the risk assessment of the operations and then in the definition and follow-up of the risk mitigation actions and programs as the most effective means to engage them as active partners in safety management. Besides the fact that you actually need the input of those in the front line, you'll ensure that they feel ownership of such initiatives. Plus, you'll show consideration to their expertise, letting them know that they're listened to. You'll prove trust and respect. In short, you'll make them feel that they are treated as adults.

This is definitely a mandatory step in order to get their buy-in and, who knows, maybe further the process of turning them into safety leaders, too.


Eduardo Blanco-Munoz contributed this article to Occupational Health & Safety. You'll find more of his articles on his LinkedIn page,


In their classic book "Nudge" (2008), Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein define their approach as "libertarian paternalism." There have been a number of discussions on how to apply this theory to Safety, and I had the honor to moderate a panel discussion of top Safety executives and specialists on this subject during the 12th HSE Excellence Europe held in Lisbon in May 2018.

The research done in the field of behavioral economics by economists such as Thaler but also by psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman is of paramount importance. It opens new perspectives for understanding the not-so-rational behaviors that humans display sometimes – if not most of the time – and how to influence them in ways that are both efficient and not constraining.

Choice architecture, as Thaler calls it, can indeed be extremely beneficial in situations where individuals may fall prey to cognitive biases conducive to unsafe behaviors. I would just suggest associating these same individuals in the choice architecture process, the same way we should involve them in the design of the other risk mitigation strategies. At the scale of small to medium organizations, this is not only possible but, as discussed above, necessary. They are adults, after all.

Posted on Dec 07, 2018

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