Changing unsafe attitudes

Oct. 29, 2008
Addressing workers’ attitudes towards safety

A wise industrial hygienist once told me that a safety program is directly impacted by human resources policies and practices. How you manage people has a huge impact on their attitude about working safely, as does how they feel management values their work contributions.

Personal experiences have an impact on the attitude workers bring with them to the job site. If someone has worked for a company that emphasizes production over safety, that will have a long-standing impact on future decisions they make. If a worker is distracted by their personal life and they bring that with them to the job, that can influence their approach toward working safely. 

Also to be considered are the dynamics of work populations. For instance, more experienced workers may have to deal with safety standards that are becoming increasingly rigorous and less risk tolerant. Safety expectations are greater today than they were a decade ago and risks that once may have been acceptable are now no longer tolerated. These same workers may have been benefiting from shortcuts for years (with no negative consequences), thus they are more apt to take risks. Also, as workers age, their capability to perform certain tasks may change and they may be taking risks without realizing it. 

Inexperienced workers may have learned unsafe work habits at previous worksites or in school. They may have taken risks with safety and been rewarded for the outcome. Some individuals get a personal rush from beating the odds. Sometimes it’s a macho attitude — I’m indestructible, it won’t happen to me. For other workers, it might come down to personal gain. Taking unreasonable risks may enable them to more quickly get on to doing other things they’d rather be doing. Some workers may simply misunderstand what’s truly important.

There are workers who may have an improper attitude toward using personal protective equipment (PPE) and believe the discomfort or inconvenience of PPE outweighs the risk of not using, or improperly using, their PPE. The employer can continually look for better or more comfortable equipment, but sometimes it just doesn’t exist. When you’re balancing the risk of exposure versus discomfort, you always have to err on the side of safety. Chemical and physical agents will cause harm, it’s a risk that can’t be taken.

Some folks view safety as a form of bureaucracy and believe ‘following the rules’ just takes longer. They might see a safe work permit as simply needing a piece of paper in their pocket without understanding that the permit is a risk assessment that ensures proper controls are utilized. The challenge with these individuals is to try to get them to see the personal value in executing safety systems effectively. They must understand the impact of their choices on their families and their co-workers. Their personal choice to take unnecessary risks can have a huge impact on others. The employer plays a critical role in creating a safety-oriented environment and culture. It takes a willing participant to work within this environment to gain maximum value from the safety systems provided.  

The unsafe leader

One of the most difficult situations a worker can find themselves in is having to confront a leader. Given the option, many people instinctively avoid this situation. In our organization, all individuals are empowered and expected to intervene and respond to unsafe acts and behaviors. Collectively as a culture, we stop activities which are likely to result in injuries and illness. We hold each other accountable for ensuring this happens daily. Having open and accessible communication routes, which support open dialog at multiple leader levels, is essential to managing the “unsafe leader”. While pressure to produce is always in the background, doing so in a safe manner must be part of the core decision- making process.

In our organization, most leaders have held some form of environmental health and safety (EH&S) role during their development process within the company. Leaders experience safety at the grassroots level and this is viewed as an important accomplishment. Leadership is not only about the ability to produce product (output), it’s also about doing so safety. Our leaders recognize that their performance is measured by safety and their career and future development within the organization is impacted by their ability to drive safety centric working environment. 

Tools that help

We are a science-based organization and our approach to safety performance is no exception. There are a number of programs we use to monitor performance. Programs include Behavioral Based Performance or BBP, near miss/unsafe condition reporting, active participation in self-assessments, housekeeping inspections, safety meetings, and shift meetings. The ability to recognize and control hazards is taught using the Continuous Hazard Analysis Technique, or CHAT. A written card is used to educate, and employee engagement with active discussion ensures knowledge sharing and an effective control strategy is utilized. This technique is applied on an instant by instant basis, to every micro-task performed. For example, if a person walks up a staircase to get a filter, all the hazards associated with this task should be considered. Where will I stand when I open the door? Will I use the handrail? Can I carry the filter down the stairs and still be able to hold the handrail? Even thinking about fully picking up one’s foot to prevent tripping “up” the stairs is part of the process of doing work. Many times, we’re only focused on the hazards of changing the filter and overlook sub-tasks that we believe are without risk. This is a self-imposed hazard assessment and control strategy. We expect it to be utilized by everyone on site including contractors and contingent staff workers. At first it may seem awkward but, it is a valuable way to approach work with a safety first mentality that can keep you out of harms way and in a better position to respond to unplanned and changing conditions. 

We also encourage dialog, proactive intervention and total engagement. We use these systems and methods to track each worker’s participation and engagement in safety measures. It gives us a window into what’s going on with each worker — are they rowing in the boat or asking someone else to carry them along. And of course, we constantly update safety procedures to make sure they’re accurate so the next person doing that task will not be at risk of failure.

While one can’t ‘profile’ the unsafe worker, you can analyze previous events to understand causes and look for trends which have contributed to folks getting hurt in the past. This approach enables you to make sure you’re doing the right thing to close the gaps in the areas of behavioral choice, equipment used, and management systems that influence the person affected.

If the data suggests that it’s an individual versus the culture, then it is an opportunity to coach and mentor that worker to make better decisions. The safety systems you have in place must be robust enough to accommodate people who are not as safety conscious as they might be. An important part of these systems is intervention by peers and work groups to help certain individuals make better decisions. 

To influence behavior and ensure systems are working properly, we also encourage our leaders to get out in the field with their work groups. Our tracking systems have shown that when leaders are visibly “operating” in a safe manner, they get great response from those reporting up to them and when leaders are not spending as much time in the field, it affects the overall safety performance. Leadership engagement is critical to safety performance. One thing to remember is that “Leadership” includes anyone in the work group viewed as a leader, not just line management.  Leaders need to be seen choosing safe behaviors and reinforcing the right decisions.

The safety culture

It is fundamentally important to bring all new employees into your company’s safety culture and your approach to performing work.

At Dow, we are “Driving to Zero” as we attempt to eliminate all injuries and illnesses. Our expectations may be very different from what some workers are used to. But once they cross our fence line, workers need to understand all members of our culture (including contractors and contingent staff workers) must approach work perhaps differently than they have in the past. Many have expressed appreciation at the fact that so much emphasis is placed on safety.  It is a fundamental part of our safety culture that no person should come to work and be hurt. 

A safe approach to work is expected between peers, between company and contractor, contingent staff worker and leader. There should be a common understanding that there are boundaries that shall not be crossed. There might be debate about what constitutes safety and that dialog is good so long as a conclusion is reached and workers or supervisors have the courage to stop if things are not working out as planned. And for displaying that courage, those employees should be recognized.

Our Drive to Zero, to eliminate all injuries and illnesses, requires us to control risk and make the necessary investment in time and resources to ensure it’s possible. It may be more costly but if you think not getting people hurt is important, then the value case has been made. For us, safety is a core value dovetailed into performance. If you can’t get safety right, you’re not going to get anything right.

For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association website at

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