When It Comes To Unsafe Behaviors There’s Plenty Of Blame to Go Around

By Phil La Duke

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If you’ve made even the most cursory read of my articles and blogs you probably already know that I don’t hold much stock in Behavior Based Safety (BBS).  I believe that except for the odd statistical outlier nut-job, nobody WANTS to get hurt and unless they were designed my the Marquis De Sade you processes aren’t intended to hurt people.  If those two things are true no amount of behavior modification—whether it be incentive programs or telling people to be more careful—is going to change much of anything.  But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe unsafe behavior is the single largest cause of injuries, and if so, we have to manage those behaviors.

Before we can manage unsafe behaviors we have to understand the context in which the behaviors occur.  We can’t take effective action unless we understand precisely why people behaved in an unsafe manner.  A couple of days ago an acquaintance told me about how he had been injured on the job during the third week of February on two consecutive years (he was nervously praying for the first of March to come so he could relax a bit).  “It was my own fault,” he explained, “I was rushing to get things done because my boss was standing over my shoulder saying ‘we gotta get this order out’”.  Unsafe behavior? sure;  the fault of the worker? I don’t think so. Most traditional BBS programs focus on the unsafe behaviors of workers. Productivity is sapped as millions of hours are wasted insisting that supervisors watch people work and coach them on their unsafe behaviors.  Don’t the people whose unsafe decisions and insistence and encouragement of unsafe behaviors bear any culpability in worker injuries? I think they should.

Here are some incredibly unsafe behaviors (attitudes + action) up-stream in the process that organizations need to address:

  • “I Don’t Care How; Just Get It Done.” Whether it’s manufacturing, or construction, or mining or oil and gas there are supervisors, and site managers, and even executives who reward the people who ignore safety protocols and procedure to “get things done”.  This sends a strong message to the workers: you will get rewarded for violating the rules.  Ask these leaders about this behavior and you will likely get a sermon on how they will never tolerate unsafe work and a worker has a right to go home in the same condition…blah, blah, blah.  But when the rubber hits the road and they are faced with falling behind schedule and giving a nod-and-wink “work safe” while telling the workers that the job must get done by Thursday at all costs.  Workers aren’t stupid; they know that they can take risks and nine times out of ten nothing bad will happen.  They understand that probability favors them not getting hurt and if they “get the job done” they will be seen—and more importantly treated—like heroes.  It’s the guys who get things done who get promoted, get the plum assignments, and get fat raises.  They will take unnecessary risks because they are rewarded for doing so, while the people who work safely are punished.  A pizza party at the end of the month for zero loss time injuries can’t compete with the raises, opportunities, and job security afford to those who “get things done”.
  • “I Don’t Care If the Safety Rule Makes It Impossible to Do the Job You Must Follow The Rule.” This behavior is most prevalent among the “command and control” safety professionals who neither know, nor care to know how the work is done.  It’s an ignorance borne out of laziness.  Workers are told they can’t do the job in the most expeditious and efficient manner because doing so is unsafe, are given an unworkable solution, and an expectation to perform to standard. Faced with this choice they take unjustifiable risks, and why wouldn’t they? We can cluck our tongues at the violations of the workers but really whose unsafe behavior is truly to blame for the hazardous situation?
  • “What Can I DO? I Can’t Make Them Work Safely.” In the grand scheme of things there is no such thing as working completely safely.  Sure we can work in ways in which we minimize our risk but even the best set of rules can only protect us from hazards that have been anticipated. It’s tough to anticipate every conceivable hazard in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment.  Too many safety professionals act like institutional eunuchs, trumpeting their emasculation to anyone they think might listen.  The lack of a safe behavior can be the same as an unsafe one.  When safety professionals or supervisors turn a blind eye toward hazards—behavioral or physical—the effect is every bit as dangerous as the unsafe act itself.
  • “I Don’t Have Time”. The lack of time has become the rallying cry for every aspiring martyr. Where the quality of a person’s work was once the measure of his or her performance now, in many organizations, bellyaching about how little time you have has become the new hallmark of an employee’s contribution.  I have heard so many safety professionals, supervisors, and operations managers whine about their lack of time to get everything done that I involuntarily roll my eyes when I hear it.  What am I supposed to do with that information? Praise you for doing a half-assed job? Sympathize because you can’t manage up? Studies have shown that people tend to do work in the following order: tasks they enjoy, tasks that are easy, tasks that are fun, and then everything else.  If you don’t have time for safety—from the maintenance managers who can’t find the time to maintain equipment or repair facility issues to the safety person who can’t find the time to do a proper incident investigation to the materials manager who doesn’t have time to get stock out of the aisle ways, to the site manager who padlocks emergency exits because he doesn’t have time to discipline the people who are using it inappropriately, to the supervisor who doesn’t have time to inspect the work area to ensure it is free of hazards—you need to either reprioritize your work or get out before someone get’s killed.
  • “They Wouldn’t Get Hurt If they would Be More Careful.” Blaming the injured is a staple of many Safety Management systems. I have heard safety professionals describe workers who have suffered repeat injuries “frequent flyers” and plant managers insist that workers are hurt “primarily because they take short cuts to get more ass time”.  I have heard that safety is everyone’s job so many times that I want to vomit.  If safety truly is everyone’s job then where is the culpability for those of us who make decisions who jeopardize the safety of others?

So maybe behavior is a key component in worker safety, and maybe we bear some responsibility for our own behavior.  If safety truly is everyone’s job than there is blood on our hands every time someone gets injured on our watch.  We bear as much of the responsibility for the gore and carnage as anyone. Maybe it’s time we take a hard look at OUR behavior before we start pointing fingers of shame at the injured worker.  Maybe it’s time for us to ask ourselves what did we do TODAY to help worker’s make safe decisions? Maybe it’s time to turn the lens of judgment on ourselves and ask what we could have done to prevent the injury that took the life of a coworker, and how we will change our OWN behavior to help workers make better, safer choices from now on.


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