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What Can The Hawthorne Electric Studies Teach Us About Worker Safety


By Phil La Duke

Last week I spoke at the National Safety Council where the behemoths of safety gather. I saw some really cool new products—work pants with need pads sewn into them, the latest in ceramic cutting technology, and even an amazing device that prevents industrial vehicle and pedestrian accidents—but I also heard a lot of the same old drivel some repackaged but mostly unadulterated snake oil sold in largely the same package, and a fair amount of the same old hackneyed arguments.  There isn’t much new under the sun, at least not in worker safety.

One of the supposed “tried and true” safety tactics is conducting behavior observations.  Behavior observations lie at the heart of many safety management systems. Exactly how these practices are performed can vary widely from organization to organization and the efficacy of these practices similarly varies from location to location.  I’ve remained largely silent (well as silent as I can ever be) on the practice, because I know many smart safety professionals for whom I have the utmost respect who value behavior observations as important components of their overall safety tactics and strategy.

The thinking that drives behavior observations is that a supervisor (or in some cases, another worker or a safety professional) watches a worker do his or her job after which the observer offers tips on how to do the work more safely. I’m over simplifying, but not a lot.  Proponents of the behavior observation believe that the combination of intervention in cases of unsafe behavior and positive feedback for safe behavior reduce injuries. Those that support Behavior Based Safety proudly point to their love of scientific study and organizational psychology but in doing so they ignore one of the most important studies of the workplace in history, those at the Hawthorne Western Electric Company (and other research conducted by conducted by Fredrick Taylor and others.) For five years, researchers studied the effects of physical, social, psychological, and environmental factors would influence the productivity[1] of workers.  The most famous finding was the dubbed the Hawthorne effect — which referred to an increase in worker productivity produced by the psychological stimulus of being made the focus of the study. One could easily extrapolate that workers too can be temporarily manipulated into working safely, but the results are neither lasting nor indicative of a lasting behavior change. If the Hawthorne Effect is true of safety, than it doesn’t matter whether the feedback is positive or negative, skilled or unskilled, well articulated or grunted out by a bonobo, the behavior of the worker will temporarily improve.

But there were other findings as well, researchers found lesser known phenomena, like the fact that research in and of itself alter the behaviors that are studied.  This phenomenon has been replicated many times in many other studies.

But perhaps more germane to safety, researchers concluded:

  • Productivity is a group activity. The Hawthorn researchers found that the relationship between the supervisors and the workers played an important role in workplace productivity. It should surprise no one that workers with good relationships with their supervisors will tend to report hazards more frequently.  If the worker believes his or her supervisors care about their safety they are far more inclined to bring safety concerns to the attention of leadership.
  • Team Norms Directly Influence Worker Productivity. Researchers have known for a hundred years that workers set the expectations for fair day’s work; but Hawthorn researchers were the first to demonstrate and describe this phenomenon. Similarly, work groups set the expectations of safety and safe work practices. This is the essential core of a corporate culture—that the work group set the rules, even those associated  with worker safety.
  • Worker skill is a poor predictors of his or her job performance. The Hawthorne study found that while worker capabilities provide some clues as to the future performance of a worker (in terms  of the physical and mental potential of the worker), exactly how well the worker will perform (again this applies to safety) the real performance is strongly influenced by social factors; it’s less about whether or not the worker is observed, and more about how the worker interacts with his or her peers.
  • The workplace is a social system. Fredrick Taylor and his colleagues viewed, the work place as a social construct; a system composed of many unpredictable and interdependent elements.

Beyond the Hawthorne Effect, proponents of behavior observations also ignore several key truths:

  • Workers behave differently when they are being studied. From the Hawthorne Electric studies in workplace productivity to studies with animals, researchers now know that the behavior of a research subject is significantly changed simply by the act of observing them.  The tale, it would seem, is tainted in the telling.
  • Observations are essentially shoddy training needs assessments.  In those cases where the worker is acting unsafely (or more likely less safely) the result is either that the worker is doing so because he or she needs to be trained in the correct procedures, or the worker has made an error.  Since we know that human error cannot be prevented through behavior observations, the act of observing workers is akin to doing a slip shod training needs assessment.

 Observations are expensive, pointless, and provide little information that could not be gathered more effectively through another method.  It is an overblown, quasi-scientific reaction to a problem that can be readily addressed through an easier and cheaper approach.


[1] It’s important to note, that while the Hawthorne researchers were studying productivity, it’s not that far from safety.  Safety is the product of a robust and efficient process; that is to say, a process cannot be considered efficient or productive if it produces poor quality or injures workers.  For the purposes of this post, productivity = safety.

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Reaching Reluctant Workers


By Phil La Duke

A while back, I posted Forgetting Andy a piece devoted to debunking scare tactics on the Rockford Greene International blog (www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com). The piece ruffled some feathers, chiefly among Behavior Based Safety fanatics who reacted in typical alarmed hysterics to a perceived attack on their cherished snake oil.  But the piece generated a question from a newly appointed safety professional at a construction site.  She asked what she could do and recounted how they had tried everything only to find that the roughneck, hard-boiled, construction crews saw safety as a sign of weakness.

Not to stereotype, but there are industries that tend to attract a certain, rough around the edges, hard guys who value physical strength and toughness over safety. It’s not that these folks are less intelligent or less sophisticated than other workers, it’s just that they have found a place where they, by virtue of their physical prowess, high pain thresholds, and shear will of force are able to endure more pain and outlast others. These workers are able to do things where the physical or mental stress would destroy an ordinary worker.  They take pride in this toughness, and attempts to get these workers to abandon their sense of identity in the name of safety isn’t likely to pay off.

Scare tactics generally have the opposite effect on these people and they will sometime redouble their efforts to demonstrate how fearless they truly are. Many of these people are fatalistic and honestly believe that “you gotta die of something”. But that doesn’t mean we should give up:

  1. Demand adult behavior. Talk to the workers individually, honestly, and in terms to which they can relate. The truth is there unsafe acts probably WON’T get them killed, just as speeding probably WON’T get you ticketed. But the longer one does something unsafely the more likely one will suffer the consequences. Sure they might get lucky, but they might not.
  2. Refute the “I been doing this for years” argument. I once argued against this argument by saying congratulations, you can never die in a car accident. When the puzzled worker asked me how I figured, I told him that I was just applying his same logic to car accidents. Because he had never died in a car accident before, he could never die in a car accident.
  3. Appeal to the brother’s keeper mentality. Explain to workers that while it’s indeed possible to act unsafely while still avoiding being injured, there is also a possibility that they will kill or injure a co-worker, or innocent bystander. Even people who are cavalier about their own safety tend to take the possibility of killing or injuring someone else fairly seriously.
  4. Don’t stop trying. Sometimes the more gruff or macho the worker the more they need to put on a front when someone corrects them. Just because they laugh in your face doesn’t mean you aren’t reaching them. Sometimes the message has to be digested and that takes time.
  5. Employ an mafiaesque “It’s just business” approach to your work. Here is the bottom line, it’s your job to help them to make safe choices, avoid unnecessary risks, and have access to proper tools and equipment. But the responsibility ends there. Explain politely and firmly your intention to do your job and your expectation that they will do theirs. Explain that there are both real world and career consequences for you both doing your job and you for your part intend to ensure your continued employment and career growth and all costs.
6) Explain that safety is about more than whether or not he get’s a boo-boo, injuries cost money, disrupt work, and in general cost the company competitive advantage. The company spends money on safety because injuries cost far MORE money. Ask them how interested they think the CEO is in keeping someone on the payroll who routinely takes stupid risks that could cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars? Also, increasingly, especially in construction, many companies consider the safety records of a subcontractor or vendor when awarding bids. Not following safety procedures jeopardizes the livelihood of all workers.
  6. Explain that many injuries develop over time. Tell them that the workplace changes rapidly and unpredictably, and what may have not have posed much of a risk ten years ago can be a huge risk today. Also, explain that many injuries aren’t acute, rather, they develop slowly over time and even the toughest worker may find them self unnecessarily crippled, dying from years of exposure, or unable to do the things in life that they used to enjoy.
  7. Appeal to Their Leadership.  The fact is, they may have figured out a way to reduce their risk of injury (owing to their physical condition) but the less seasoned, newer workers probably haven’t.  And lacking their physical strength and years of conditioning (many veterans know exactly how much variance a process can tolerate before it fails—owing, primarily, to years of near misses and/or witnessing coworkers getting hurt.  Workers learn what is safe from veterans—not safety professionals or supervisors. New workers look to conform, not to what the safety guy tells him or her, but rather to the “real rules”, that is, the norms and practices of the majority of the workforce when no authority figure is present.
  8. Fire their asses. Obviously this is the measure of last resort, but if the problem persists talk to the people you need to and fire a handful of the worst offenders. If you have a union, reach out to its leadership and cooperate on the safety crackdown. This is essential, even if the worst offenders don’t get the message they will be someone else’s problem. Safety professionals need to recognize that they can’t save everyone, and the only thing that reaches the obstinate offender might be losing his or her job for putting themselves and/or others in jeopardy.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you will consider sharing it.  There are buttons that will allow you to tweet this, share it on Facebook (think of it as payback for all those “if you love your mother you will repost this” crap your friends subject you to), post this to LinkedIn groups, or emailing it to people.  Don’t be afraid, the life you save might be mine!

I hope you will join me at my National Safety Council speech, Social Networking and Safety, this Tuesday in Orlando, Florida.  It’s at 4:00 p.m. and by then you will be so sick of other presentations you will likely be praying to die.  Don’t die; come to my presentation. I also will be at the Facility Safety Management magazine’s booth meeting readers and signing people up for free subscriptions.

Filed under: Safety, , , ,

Case Management Atrocities


By Phil La Duke

Nobody likes a cheat.  Whether the cheater is fraudulently collecting disability insurance that is not his or her due, or the cheater who fakes an injury so that she can get undeserved light duty.  But I have noticed an alarming and disappointing tendency among organizations who brag about their case management as if, cheating injured workers out of their legal claims of disability pay.

Before any of you furrow your brows and type of an indignant “how dare you…” email, I am not talking about those among us who act in good faith and try to weed out the dishonest who steal from the company by claiming injuries that don’t exist, or that exist but were caused outside the workplace.  But on the other hand, if this hits close to home, maybe you ought examine your conscious and if it sounds like I’m talking to you I probably am, and if I am, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Let’s begin by level setting. No one wants to get hurt, and while there are some people with larcenous hearts, most people (and I use the word “most” judiciously and correctly—to denote the majority of people, as in more than half.) don’t want to take money fraudulently.

Most Claims Are Legit

I further believe that most injury claims are legitimate; people get hurt, report, the injury and hope to get back to work as soon as possible.  I believe that most fraudulent claims are at least on some level legitimate; people get hurt but they either exaggerate the extent of the injury or deliberately milk the time off work so they can malinger while living on the dole. But there’s a lot of grey area between the legitimately injured and the fraudulently injured, and too often organizations treat all injured workers as if they are liars and thieves.

Misguided Case Management Workers

There are some case management professionals who view the core purpose of their jobs as denying benefits.  Most are decent, ethical people, but they may still be under the mistaken impression that denying disability benefits on a technicality is the right thing to do. This may not be their fault.  A friend of mine has been a policeman for over twenty years. He told me that if he had it to do over again he would have chosen another career.  Not because he doesn’t have the same values that led him to chose that path in the first place, but because, as he explained , a policeman tends to see people when they are at their worst (watch an episode of Cops and you will understand what he’s talking about). So I guess I shouldn’t blame a veteran case management professional who starts to view injured worker with something of a jaded eye, but this assumption that workers are guilty until proven innocent hinders our ability to create a culture where workers value safety.

While some people do fraudulently make claims (after all, if they didn’t, it’s likely that claims management wouldn’t exist, or at least it wouldn’t exist to the extent that it currently does) it’s the grey areas that case management can get dicey and where otherwise compassionate and ethical case managers are tempted to go off the rails, morally speaking.

Take for example, the case of worker who strains his back on a Friday but doesn’t report the injury and then helps his brother-in-law roof his house.  In the middle of roofing job, he realizes that he has been injured more seriously than he initially believed.  He reports the injury on Monday. In this case, the claims management team is likely to dispute the claim (because a weekend has passed between the alleged injury and the claim.) If the worker is honest and admits that he had been engaged in manual labor on the weekend the claim is likely to be denied, even though it is completely legitimate.  In this case the case management professional has to little choice but to dispute the claim.  The tragedy here is that the fraudulent claimant is far more likely to seek the services of a skivvy lawyer that specializes in fraudulent medical cases while the legitimately injured worker is punished for telling the truth.

What’s more, this is a situation that most organizations have created.  They offer incentives for not reporting injuries—safety BINGOs, bonuses for no injuries, and similar programs make it uncomfortable to report an injury, even one that the injured party knows is a legitimate workplace injury.  The dirty little secret of too many behavior based safety programs is that they encourage injured workers to seek outside medical attention and keep the injuries off the books.  While this is a great way to make the company’s safety record look good, it’s basically just juking the stats.

The Nuremburg Defense

I am sure to get a view angry emails that defend Case Management abuses (and they are abuses even if they are the by-product of unintended and subconscious biases) as attacking case management professionals for “only doing their jobs”.  I reject this criticism out of hand.  No one can every justify doing the wrong thing by claiming that he or she is only doing his or her job.  It didn’t work for the Nazis and Nuremburg and it doesn’t work for case management workers.  The key to ethical case management is in training and in expectations.  Those who provide medical attention to workers need to understand that the difference between a recordable injury and one that is not is often as simple as the kind of pain reliever administered to the worker.  This is not to say that a physician should be discouraged from doing what’s best for the patient, but all things being equal why not avoid a recordable?

Workers should be trained on the importance of timely and accurate reporting of injuries and more attention should be focused on eliminating injuries, identifying and reporting hazards and near misses, and drawn away from denying claims.

Further, claims managers should be taught that their jobs aren’t about catching cheaters, rather, it is to protect the workers from being wrongly denied benefits at the hands of corporate jackals, and protect the company from people who would rather sit home watching Judge Judy and fraudulently collect disability funds. It’s a undeniably a tough job, but one they chose, after all, it’s not like they were pressed into service after getting falling down drunk in a waterfront pub.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, ,

Striking a Balance


By Phil La Duke

I presented at a corporate safety day on Friday and in the course of the activities I found myself in conversation with an expert in hearing protection.  The conversation turned to the people who where hearing protection while mowing their lawns.  I asked him point blank what he thought and his answer surprised me.  He told me that for some people they are actually putting themselves at risk by doing so.  He explained that it took about 3 hours of mowing to do damage one’s ears and that while it is important for people who do landscaping for a living to wear hearing protection encouraging workers to wear it at home might be putting them at risk.

What possible harm could come from wearing hearing protection? The loss of situational awareness, in other words, people won’t hear dangers.  When it comes to hazards one protection does not fit all, it seems. How serious is the loss of situational awareness? Well that depends on the situation.  If the environment is relatively compacted (like many older neighborhoods) and had a substantial number of hazards than the risks posed by the loss of situational awareness can be significant.  But, if one is spending three hours or more cutting several acres of grass the loss of situational awareness is far less a threat than the exposure risks posed by the loud noise from the lawn mower.

Many consumers (as opposed to professional landscapers) would gain more, simply by maintaining their equipment.  Most loud landscaping equipment has mufflers that are installed to reduce the noise to safer levels and yet consumers seldom think of preventative maintenance on this equipment.

The conversation made me think about a similar conversation I had with a client. Plant leadership were debating whether to allow tinted safety glasses and if so, to what extent should the plant allow the glasses to be tinted. On one hand, supervisors were documenting insufficient lighting as a hazard, but on the other hand workers were requesting tinted safety glasses. In the end, the plant leadership agreed that there was no reason to allow the workers to wear sunglasses indoors and that doing so did pose some risk.  The decision wasn’t popular among the handful of workers who really wanted to wear sunglasses, but the greater good was served.  In this case, safety professionals were asked to advise plant leadership on the balance between worker satisfaction and lowering the risk of injury from wearing sunglasses indoors.

Worker satisfaction with protective equipment is no small matter.  The U.S. Army found that it was able to significantly reduce the number of eye trauma injuries by changing from the unpopular and unattractive safety glasses to the cooler and more popular glasses worn by pilots.  Compliance has a lot to do with the workers wanting to comply as anything else.

As safety professionals, we are called to strike a balance daily. We have to balance the cost to correct a hazard against the risk it poses (we might be better off containing it long term than correcting it.) When we get too firmly entrenched in one methodology or philosophy we lose the flexibility necessary to make these often tough decisions. In fact, we often can’t even see that a trade off  needs to be made if we can only see the world from one lens.

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Now What? What To Do After The Low Hanging Fruit Has Been Picked


By Phil La Duke

When you first started, worker injuries were out of control, every time the phone rang you jumped, wondering if this was THE call, and you honestly didn’t know how you were ever going to get things done. Then, after awhile, things got better, injuries were down, you had a couple of good programs that showed real progress and then…nothing.  Now you have a program that is dangerously close to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, while injuries are down, you have that nagging sensation that you’re not getting a complete picture of the real risk of injuries in the workplace; you’re stuck.

Sound familiar? If so, welcome to the world of the harvested low-hanging fruit.  “Low-Hanging Fruit” is the popular analogy for solving the numerous, yet none-the-less easy, issues to resolve. When it comes to safety, many of us have made a career of picking low-hanging fruit.  Behavior Observations make the most obvious issues easy to spot, and training and awareness campaigns (assuming they are effective) reduce the number of poor choices workers make, and heck, the Hawthorne Effect means that doing virtually ANYTHING will get us some improvement, but then what?  It is easier to move an incident rate from 25 to 12 than it is to move it from 3.5 to 3.25.  In a world where leadership repeatedly asks “what have you done for me lately” safety professionals can’t rest on the laurels, the execs want to know what you are doing NOW, and when they can see results or better yet a Return On Investment (ROI).

Recognize that You Need A New Strategy and Tactics

Once you’ve resolved the many, small but irksome issues your process starts to stabilize, which is good. Unfortunately, business is rarely stable.  Production demands go up and down, population demographics shift, and employment levels ebb and flow. So having a static, “we’re done now” methodology won’t work, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily.  By reducing the number of insignificant issues you can now

Seek the Evolutionary, not Revolutionary

Too many safety professionals erase their organization’s progress by starting over.  This wastrel process of seeking out the next big idea wipes out any gains that previous methodologies have yielded.  Instead of being drawn in by the latest fad (or promising new potential) look at what’s working (even on a small scale) and what’s returning the most value.  Making improvements to what works for you may not be sexy, but it promises to take you much further than starting over with a radically new approach.

Apply What You’ve Learned

Mesmerization, Phrenology, downsing, Iridology…were (and to some still are) the height of scientific theory. And while they are now they are now widely dismissed as quackery  most had some roots in major scientific discovery.  Once the low hanging fruit has been picked you need to apply what you’ve learned, while guarding against misapplying and over applying what you’ve learned.

Prune The Bushes

You probably don’t need as large an infrastructure to tackle the more systemic and deep-seated problems than you needed to solve the many easy issues.  Consider reorganizing your safety department and trim some programs that have become obsolete.  Avoid the temptation of building an empire and opt for fewer, more capable heads over many generalized hands.

Remember That Was Then, This Is Now

Superstitions—hat on the bed, shoes on the table, thirteen at the table, etc. are all, for the most part, rooted in fact.  Unfortunately, people cling to facts long after the facts are no longer relevant.  What was once sound advice becomes shadowy superstition.  Similarly, things that might have been true 15 years ago in safety may no longer be true, or at very least, are less a concern now.  Technology, government regulations and numerous other factors change our safety environment and need to be considered as we craft safety policy and procedures.  Question everything, and ask if there is a way to achieve the same (or better) results through cheaper, faster, or more lasting means.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Telling someone to “work smarter, not harder” is clichéd, but in a very real sense that is what we are asked to do every day in worker safety.  Instead of grousing around about this in the break room, we need to not only rise to occasion but also demand it from our vendors. The new economic reality means that we not only have to question the value provided by our current tools and tactics but look for innovative ways to achieve similar results.

We need to face the hard fact that safety, as a profession, has been completely and irreversibly changed and if we are to survive we need to adapt to the new reality. 

Filed under: Safety

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