Fraidy Cats: Is Fear Jeopardizing Worker Safety?

by Phil La Duke

fraidy cat

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”—Franklin D. Roosevelt

FDR famously said, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”.  That was easy for him to say, as president during the Great Depression and World War II he was probably the most heavily guarded man in the western hemisphere. Even so, I think he might have been on to something.

Now we have the Great Recession, and the malingering global economy has created, in many workplaces, a pervasive climate of fear. Now we’re afraid of Cyprus for crying out loud,  Honestly, until about a month ago, I wasn’t completely sure Cyprus was still around, I mean, when exactly did Turkey and Greece stop fighting over it? Finding out that the fate of Cyprian banks could break up the European Union is a bit like waking up tomorrow to find that Malta has obtained nuclear weapons and has decided to become a rogue nation state.  Possible? Sure. Something to be afraid of? Not really.  But one thing we can all agree on is that the economic uncertainty has created a lot of fear in the workplace, and fear can undermine worker safety in many ways. So unless we understand the nature and origins of this fear, we can never implement effective countermeasures.

Fear of Being Injured

Certainly a big fear in the workplace today, especially among older workers, is the fear that one will suffer a career ending injury.  Many people believe that getting injured will not only jeopardize their existing job, but also make it more difficult to find a new job should they become unemployed.  For other workers, there is a real fear that if they raise an issue about safety the employer is likely to move the operations overseas in search of a more relaxed safety standard and a government more sympathetic to companies. These workers are far less likely to balk when asked to do something that is unreasonable risky.

Recently a large manufacturing operation had a hypothesis: layoffs would increase injury claims (mostly fraudulent) as workers preferred to go on disability rather than on unemployment. They did a small study and were surprised by the results. Instances of injury claims (and most notably fraud) decreased. But under recording of injuries skyrocketed. The reason? Workers feared that an injury on their record would make them more likely to be laid off, and what’s more, a medical leave would make it far more difficult to find employment elsewhere if they did lose their jobs. Of course this is only a single example, and one study does not a trend make, but it convinced me, and it convinced my customer.

Fear of Reporting Injuries

Speaking of manufacturers, I was recently on a plane with a supervisor at a very large steel manufacturer.  The manufacturer has been under the gun to reduce its injuries owing, in part, to several fatalities and severe injuries.  The solution? Anyone who gets injured gets a five-day suspension until they can determine whether or not the worker was at fault.  This had the not surprising result of significantly lowering reported injuries.  Workers can’t afford to lose five days pay so they go to their own physicians.  All the while, some block-headed regional safety director takes credit for making the work place safer. When they kill someone, and they WILL kill someone, I hope they put him in a hole so deep even the other convicts will avoid it.  This mouth breather has found a way to make himself look good, improve his record, and impress the executives, but scaring the beejeezus out of the workers.  Yes, there are still these neanderthals working in safety and yes, there are still executives who praise them for not taking any shit from these “so-called, injured workers”/

There are other cases where the fear of reporting injuries can manifest in unexpected ways. In some environments, where a single injury can spoil the safety BINGO or even cost coworkers a quarterly bonus, not only is the fear present its palpable and reasonable. Its unwise to mess with someone’s paycheck in the best economic time, but in a recession it can be downright dangerous.

Fear of Uncertainty

I’m no economist, nor do I play one on television (although I do occasionally lie to women in bars about being one) but I believe the single biggest influencer in lack of consumer confidence was the “share the pain” craze of the last five years. Time was where when their was a downturn the company laid of 10% of the workforce, and the walking wounded who were left behind licked their proverbial wounds and then got back to work. We mourned our dear departed and then went back to our daily routine. But the practice of forced furloughs, unpaid shut downs and other economic chicanery left everyone wondering when the axe would fall. Faced with a feeling of impending doom workers everywhere stopped spending in anticipation of a layoff that would never come. Reductions in staff hurt, but the pain quickly fades. This constant state of fear and worry creates stress and stress, worry, and fear increases our mistakes. The next time someone at your company suggests we “share the pain” you should suggest extinguishing a cigarette in their left eye; if that isn’t painful enough, do both eyes.

Fear As A Performance Influencer

In the Just Culture philosophy they talk about the inevitability of human error. Everyone makes mistakes to err is human, blah blah blah. Even while we can’t prevent people from making mistakes, we CAN increase the likelihood of making mistakes and bad decisions. The things that make things worse—harder to focus, more difficult to think, and make it easier to make mistakes—are fairly easy to identify. Fatigue, stress, worry, distraction, and yes, fear. In these cases the frightened worker is markedly more likely to omit a key step, take a dangerous shortcut, or otherwise increase his or her likelihood of injuring him/herself or others.

An automobile manufacturer with whom I worked saw a strong correlation between employee assistance line calls and injuries. Judging from their data, the safety leadership inferred a strong relationship between people who were worked up about something and injuries and near misses. They may be guilty of causefusion (attributing cause and effect to situations where only a correlation exists) but they believed that they were seeing these performance influencers inaction. As the economic slowdown turned into The Great Recession, both the calls to the hotline AND injury levels stayed flat, but the nature of the calls changed. Instead of calling with job related issues, more and more of the workers called about problems outside the workplace. Problems with coworkers or supervisors were replaced by worries of foreclosures and other financial concerns.

Fear of Loss of Livelihood

Fear of job loss and the subsequent financial consequences can increase the likelihood of workplace violence, as well. Studies in the causes of the postal shootings found a correlation between fear of job loss and the outbreak of the shooting. Postal workers were constantly threatened with the loss of their jobs while at the same time reminded that their limited education and background made it highly unlikely that they would ever have it as good as they had it at the post office. Whether or not these statements were true, workers believed them and when faced with nothing else to lose a handful of mentally ill workers reacted violently.

When fear is replaced by a feeling of fatefulness bad things are going to happen. Companies can only push workers (from the executive suite to the rank and file) so far before the system breaks down and bad things start to happen.

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