Pretty much any worker you ask will tell you that they work as safe as possible and wouldn’t ever behave in a way that would put another person’s safety at risk, but is there a difference between what the intent was when someone is performing a task, versus actually doing it safely? Here are some questions that have been asked far too often after an incident has occurred – and the answers that have been provided:
Fortunately, each of them could answer the questions. Others who have done some of the same things can’t. If you have been in safety any length of time you have likely heard these types of answers, too.
The people involved in these incidents are not bad people. Yes, they did participate in behaviour that seems pretty silly,, but they’re not the only people to ever do these kinds of things. At the heart of the matter is this: to develop a great safe work culture, you really need to challenge attitudes, behaviour and the ways of thinking that run deeply in people.
During safety culture workshops we always ask questions about what types of behaviours they know are occurring in their workplaces that shouldn’t be. If we ask individuals how often they participate in this behaviour, the answer is almost always ‘never’. However, when we ask how frequently other people are involved in such behaviour, the answer is much more often to the point: it happens frequently with other people, but not with me.
I’ve found that most people respond to questions about how they would intend to behave if the situation were typical, but if they actually find themselves in a particular situation, their actual behaviour may not be quite at the level of what they know to be acceptable behaviour. There also seems to be a big difference between what people say is the way they would behave in a situation compared to how often they believe other people actually practice the right behaviour in the same situations. When assessing an organisation’s safety culture, it’s often more meaningful to determine how regularly something occurs, either by directly observing the workplace or finding out how much employees see their coworkers acting unsafely. If they believe others are doing things they shouldn’t, that is the perception of your safety culture.
It is quite possible the effect is explained in the saying “We judge ourselves by our intentions. We judge others by their actions and behaviours.” Two examples illustrate this:
- “I would have gotten the hot work permit, but it was only a small piece to cut off, it was the end of shift and it needed to be done before the next shift”.
- “I wouldn’t normally make a call on our cell phone in the car but I knew he wouldn’t be available later and I had to get approval right away.”
I am not sure if you view these types of explanations as justification for people’s behaviour, but anyone else watching could only assume safe behaviour isn’t important. Our brain is very powerful justifying our actions because we need to ensure we preserve our self-esteem and think of ourselves as good people. But if people are asked if they have seen this behaviour in other people, they very quickly agree it happens if it exists in your work culture.
I recently conducted a pilot safety culture workshop where one of the discussions was about the safe behaviours that demonstrate a safe work culture. There were about 40 people seated in eight groups. Each group was asked to assess whether the behaviours listed in the chart would be performed throughout the workforce 75% of the time or better. In other words, the behaviours would need to be reflected fairly often in other people throughout their work culture. The chart shows for this company how many table teams said the behaviour occurred in the work culture consistently:
Remember, the people were asked to think about how often they see these behaviours occurring in their coworkers at least 75% of the time. You would likely think this organization has poor safety performance, but their safety performance is considered to be in the middle for other companies in their industry.
Asking the question from another person’s point of view could provide a much more meaningful understanding of what needs to be worked on within for your safety culture. Remarkably, very few tables were willing to say they see other people taking immediate action to correct substandard conditions or using the safety tools they should, or willingly having tougher conversations with their peers 75% (or more) of the time. Interestingly, the notion of being ‘good people doing the right thing’ enters in when all tables reported they see people focusing on the task at hand, but the number of tables drops quickly when they think about how often they see other people not stopping unsafe work and reporting it to their supervisor. This is quite useful information for the company and allows them to really focus on aspects of their safety program to improve it.
Safe behaviour can’t just be about good intentions. When things become too normal, predictable, or aren’t challenging, people may not consistently exercise the right behaviour. But most likely, other people and the organisation knew some of these things were occurring. People knew the work conditions or behaviours listed at the beginning of the blog were occurring. Assessing the behaviours that do or do not occur consistently in your culture, creating programs that help people see the issues personally, and then speaking and acting passionately to change the behaviour will help create the safest work culture.