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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.

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4 Responses

  1. Mike Sullivan says:

    Phil,

    As someone who took exception to much of what you wrote in “Forgetting Andy”, I think your advice in this column is excellent. In my years as a safety director for an industrial construction firm I’ve had to employ all of these tactics at one point or another.

    You can get through to these workers, but it usually doesn’t happen overnight. You have to earn their respect first, and that requires time spent in their world and a willigness to understand the details and challenges of their job. It’s worth the effort, though. Once convinced, these workers become your best allies – and on a construction site peer pressure counts for a lot.

    • Phil La Duke says:

      Well said Mike. I think the message between this piece and forgetting Andy are essentially the same. We need to treat workers like grown ups even when they act like children. Respect goes a long way, but sometimes it won’t get you there. I just don’t believe that the kinds of workers described here scare easily, and trying to scare them isn’t respectful, it’s condescending. I used to work as a security guard at a nuclear plant. Simply telling me the dangers endemic to working around high voltage electricity and radioactivity was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow. I didn’t need an episode of “I Should Have Died” to drive the point home. I don’t believe people who are antagonistic of safety respond to scare tactics, and that only people generally sympathetic of safety do respond to it.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments

  2. Mike Newman says:

    Iworked at a place ,where a guy was killed.It was real hard and real good guy they never had safety meetings and it showed.It caused the plant manager to lose his job. A few years later the end of forklift smashed a guys foot.maintence fixed it that day a little late.I also worked at a place where we talked about safety everyone day before the shift .I WORKED THERE 40 DAYS AND THEY HAD 4 ACCIDENTS.A lot of companies talk safety and they never come out there offices if you see something report it .

    • Phil La Duke says:

      Mike:

      Thank you for reading and your important comments. Too many people believe that workplaces that you describe no longer exist. They are wrong. What’s more, the type of workers who are employed by these death traps are often (though not always) people who lack a certain sophistication. These companies hire immigrants, young adults, inexperienced workers who are just glad to have a job, and working poor who are often either don’t know the dangers they face, or who are reluctant to notify the authorities.
      This is not to say that all these places employ solely from that population, in fact, even highly skilled and experienced workers can find themselves in these death traps.

      Thanks for pointing out that all is not well in the work world

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