Heads Up: Raising Awareness Is Often A Waste of Time

by Phil La Duke

One of my recent posts, Forgetting Andy, has generated a lot of discussion about the value of raising awareness.  In that post, I questioned the effectiveness of showing, gory, “let this be a lesson to you”, “it could happen to you” videos and speeches to people. There appears to be a lot of people who really love this schlocky crap.  God bless them.

But in most cases it doesn’t work.  Before I go on I want to freely acknowledge that there is a large contingent of safety professionals who need constant validation that their tired, ineffectual, and clichéd tactics are appropriate. Further I will also acknowledge that there are a lot of well-intentioned and hardworking safety people who work tirelessly and thanklessly trying to raise awareness of dangers lurking in the workplace.  To them I say, “so what?” I can get an imbecile to work tirelessly and thanklessly, what we need are people who get results.  In fact, I think most thankless jobs are thankless because the work is more or less without any discernable value.

That having been said, is there value to raising awareness? What could it hurt? There is value in raising awareness when a) people in your organizations are injured because they weren’t aware of a hazard, or b) when people under estimate the likelihood that they will be injured by a known hazard.  But raising awareness, in and of itself, is worthless.  It makes sanctimonious and self-righteous safety professionals feel good, but it means squat to those in the trenches. And let’s not forget that “raising awareness” of the obvious is condescension, it’s the not-so-subtle way safety professionals tell workers that they are smarter than them.  And “making people aware” over and over is really just nagging, and if I wanted to be nagged, I would still be married.

Yet, in seeming hypocrisy, I just posted to a blog about the need to raise awareness of the dangers of sleep deprecation.  So what separates awareness in this area from raising awareness through the threat and gore videos?  A lot actually.

Yesterday I was talking about the “threaten and gore” videos and how I don’t believe they teach much of anything to people, and the person to whom I was talking said he didn’t agree with the idea that awareness is valueless. He continued that his kids have been sufficiently affected by public service announcements warning about texting while driving. I confess that he hit on a subject that was near and dear to me.  I have seen these public service announcements.  They are powerful and effective.  But what’s the difference? Plenty:

  1. Context.  A video, whose message is basically “I wasn’t careful so I got hurt” isn’t the same as a message that says, “I was doing what you were doing and this is how things turned out.”  The difference between the two messages is context.  People who make a living telling tales of how bad things happened to theme because they didn’t heed the sage advice of the safety guy lacks a transferable context. It’s an easy to understand business model, if I make a video that tells the tale of an ironworker who fails to tie off and is horribly injured, the video is really only impactful to other ironworkers. And if I am a speaker and video producer I don’t just want to sell my wares exclusively to ironworkers so I market them as universally applicable even though I know they really aren’t.  It’s a little white lie that I tell because nobody really gets hurt, and who doesn’t benefit from a cautionary tale. But most of the people respond by thinking, “okay, the next time I’m working high steel, I’ll be sure and tie off”.  The context is so removed from the work they do that you might as well be telling them to be careful while doing dental surgery on an unanesthetized tiger; right, will do.
  2. Applicability. For a message to be accepted, it needs to ring true.  Unless the message emotionally resonates as something that could realistically happen to me, I won’t listen. I will get caught up in the emotional melodrama, and it may bring a tear to the eye of one or two viewers but most people will remain largely unaffected. If the story is about ironworkers, nonironworkers will be less effective.  People will continue to believe that it won’t happen to them because realistically it probably won’t. People who work in restaurants, or foundries, or mines, or oil refineries have a difficult time relating to the story presented.  It’s easy to check out mentally.  Instead of sending the message that it COULD happen to me, it reinforces the belief that it only happens to others. And while it’s true that even the dimmest bulb can extrapolate that carelessness can readily translate into similar issue in his or her world, the reality is that these comparisons can only be invited in, and only those already sympathetic to the cause will ever embrace this message. Where these messages have the most impact are with people who have almost had it happen to them; of course these people need no convincing.
  3. Actions.  Telling a worker to be careful is useless. As a worker, at least in my mind I AM being careful. I need you to tell me specifically HOW I can protect myself from these dangers, and I need you to give me practical, useful advice, not pipe dreams and unworkable solutions.  If the you make my job more difficult to do in the name of avoiding an injury that, in my eyes will probably never injury me, and if it does injury me the injury will be inconsequential, then I am going to take that risk every time.
    At the end of the day workers don’t need to be made aware of hazards that they probably know better than the safety guy. What they need is solid advice regarding the best way of dealing with these hazards and without making it impossible (or impractical) to do the job. If safety professionals can’t give workers the answers they need to do the job safely they should stay out of the way.  Start worrying more about how workers can do the job without getting hurt and less about how workers can avoid being injured as an abstract.  Generally speaking, workers know how they can avoid being injured: they can stay home and starve.  What they don’t always know is how they can do their jobs, keep up with production without taking risks that might get them hurt.  Raising the workers’ awareness without providing solutions doesn’t do anything more than make the safety guy feel good.
  4. Specificity. The public service announcements that I see are very specific.  Here is what happened, here is why it happened, and here’s what could have prevented it.  The horror show, “it could happen to you” videos lack specificity.  The message becomes less “it could happen to you” and more “it could happen to anybody” except it can’t. Without specifics the message become ludicrous and nobody believes it, in fact, unless the warning is very specific people are likely to ignore it all together.

Awareness of a specific hazard that presents a real danger of injuring a worker is crucial, but awareness of a general threat of a danger that probably only applies to a microcosm of the population does little more than make the safety professional feel good while making him or her look ridiculous.

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