You’re Only As Safe As You Feel

Abraham Maslow theorized that a one could only reach one’s full potential if one’s needs were met.  Maslow arranged these needs into his seminal work, the Hierarchy Of Needs.  The needs in the Hierarchy of Needs are arranged in a pyramid with the most basic human needs at the bottom and the more intellectual and social needs at the top.  According to Maslow, a person cannot achieve the higher needs until the more basic needs have been met.   At the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy lie creativity, problem solving, and autonomy—the very things we typically look for in workers we would describe as “empowered” or “engaged”.

While Maslow identified the most primal needs as the need for food, shelter, sex, and sleep,  he identified the need for safety and security as needs just above these in importance.  And unless these needs are met it is impossible to pursue higher needs.  This is interesting in the context of worker safety because many safety professionals are either unaware of Maslow’s research, ignore it outright, or fail to recognize how this research applies to the workplace.

According to Maslow, a worker who doesn’t feel safe (irrespective of the accuracy of that opinion) cannot possibly focus on process improvements, creative problem solving, or any of the other empowered activities we expect of today’s workers.

So what does that mean for safety? Plenty.  First, it calls into question the basic premise that safety incentives aimed at lowering injury rates.  If people don’t feel safe (which is a sane response to working in an environment where people are frequently injured) they are incapable of contributing any worthwhile ideas for process improvement.  We are not providing an incentive to work more safely we are providing a random reward that will confuse the workers and basic reward good luck and punish bad luck.  If we are rewarding outcomes at all; far more frequently we are rewarding people for concealing their injuries which in turn makes people feel less safe and more insecure.  Before anybody gets all indignant about my questioning the value of safety incentives, I will grant that incentives have their places—primarily in workplaces that have already made great strides and are less concerned about fixing a broken safety system and more concerned with sustaining hard fought gains. But in most cases, organizations provide incentives too early in the evolution and maturity cycle of their safety systems.

Beyond merely providing incentives, Maslow’s work have a profound influence on the type of incentives that should be provided.  Many organizations provide one of the most basic motivators available: money.  The trickiest part of motivation is that once a need has been satisfied, it ceases to motivate.  Money is a basic need and provided the worker makes a living wage, money will be less and less a motivator (unless the amount is continually increased.)

Some incentives are focused on meeting social needs—recognition, social appreciation, or contribution to a team.  Again this approach assumes that the workers feel safe, and secure or the incentive will fail.  But nonetheless incentives at this level can be effective if they are appropriately awarded.  Awarding a team for the accomplishments of single member may be less effective than singling out an individual.

Underlying all these factors is a basic question: does the person receiving the incentive find it valuable and worth winning.  I once had a worker describe safety incentive as “they buy us a pizza once a month if we don’t kill anyone”.  The worker went on to explain how condescending he found the incentive program.  Clearly the organization was not attuned to the needs of the worker.

Another thing organizations need to consider when analyzing their incentive programs in the context of Maslow is the concept of security.  Workplaces where workers believe their jobs are in jeopardy are far more dangerous than more stable environment.  Workers who believe they are eminent danger of unemployment are incapable of responding to higher level stimuli.  In other words, safety BINGO will not provide incentive to work safe to workers more worried about keeping their jobs; injury rates will likely fall, not because workers don’t want to miss out on the chance of winning a baseball cap, but because injured workers fear that they will be the first to be laid off.  It is true that in some environment injury fraud increases in the face of layoffs, but it is equally true that genuine injury claims are more likely to be concealed for fear of retribution.

So in very real terms, safety is not just about an absence of injuries, or even, as I have so often thundered, a presence of risk.  Safety is more than either of these.  Safety is about feeling safe and working in a place with so little risk of injury that your subconscious doesn’t trigger stress reflexes.


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