“Bad decisions made with good intentions, are still bad decisions.” — James C. Collins
When she was just 21 years old, Candace Carnahan lost her leg in a workplace incident. One day, during her third summer working at a paper mill, Candace took a shortcut that she’d seen everyone else take hundreds of times before. She stepped over the conveyor belt. Only, instead of clearing the belt this time, her foot got caught in a pinch point. It pulled her foot into the machine, which continued to run until a coworker could press the manual stop button. As a result, Candace’s left leg had to be amputated.
Unfortunately, Candace’s story isn’t unique. It’s one of many where actions that are known to be unsafe have resulted in individual injuries, or even incidents on a much larger scale. It’s not a surprise that unsafe actions can lead to undesirable consequences.
The Effect of Human Behavior
In 1931, W.H. Heinrich told us in his book, Industrial Accident Prevention, about two things that result in incidents – unsafe acts and practices, or unsafe conditions. Unsafe acts and practices, like Candace’s decision to step over the conveyor belt, are common. In fact, you can probably identify at least one unsafe act or practice at your own job. It’s more difficult to pinpoint a source for unsafe conditions until you consider that behind every unsafe condition, there is a management system that could be allowing that condition to exist. It all comes back to human behavior. The choices we make, the actions we take, the risk we decide to tolerate – they all play a role in safety. Most of us don’t have an internalized desire to be killed. So why do we do unsafe things?
How many times have you heard the saying “rules are meant to be broken?” Probably more than once. It’s one of those phrases that recurs time and time again throughout our life, specifically when it’s beneficial to the person saying it. The truth, though, is that not all rules are meant to be broken, especially when it comes to workplace safety. Rules keep us safe, so there must be some motivation to break them.
If you ask a random group of employees why they break rules, you are likely going to get a variety of answers. There are some, however, that are more common than others. One of the most common complaints is that the rules are “stupid.” While this may, sometimes, be a valid claim, the reason is less often because the rules are “stupid” and more often because there is a lack of understanding about how exactly to follow the rules. A second common complaint is that there are just too many rules, that it isn’t possible to follow them all and still get the job done. The list of reasons for rule breaking is a long one. The dominant theme, though, is that rules aren’t broken out of maliciousness.
The dictionary defines invincible as “incapable of being conquered, defeated, or subdued.” I’ve watched a lot of Marvel movies, so when I hear the word invincible, I immediately think of superheroes. “Invincible” is not a word that is typically associated with the everyday employee. However, there are employees who engage in unsafe behaviors because, when confronted with the possible consequences, they think “that won’t happen to me.” After many years on the job without incident, it’s easy to see how one could come to adopt this mindset. If you’ve been repeating the same unsafe behavior for ten years without consequence, it feeds confidence. Hence, we come to believe that we are “invincible.”
No matter what you believe, the fact is that incidents and injuries do not discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you believe it won’t happen to you, it can. It doesn’t matter if you have 25 years or 25 days of experience, no one is invincible – if you engage in unsafe behaviors, you are susceptible to the consequences, even if it’s never happened to you before.
Risk Vs. Benefit
Anyone who drives a car has probably been guilty of speeding at some point in their life. We know it’s against the law, but we do it anyway because we’re late. We have somewhere we need to be, and we need to get there in a hurry. We know there’s risk. We know that speeding is dangerous, and we might get pulled over and issued a ticket, but we weigh those risks against the benefit of not being late to our destination. Then, we make a choice to speed, deciding that the benefit outweighs the risk. This benefit versus risk analysis is almost always at play in our lives and the decisions you make at work are no exception.
Meeting a work goal can be stressful in and of itself. When procedures and regulations make meeting those goals difficult, increasing the stress level further, the benefit of saving time to meet the goal begins to appear more appealing than any associated risk. Thus, the employee decides to take a shortcut or engage in hazardous conduct, feeling that meeting the goal is more beneficial than injury, incident, or potential punishment.
A risk versus benefit analysis is valid in almost any circumstance. Whether it’s work goals, safety incentives or monetary rewards, it’s in human nature to weigh the risks and base a decision on the outcome we find most advantageous.
Be Smart, Be Conscious, Use Good Judgement
Even when unsafe actions are taken with the best intentions, they are still unsafe. Not only are you putting yourself at risk, you are also putting others at risk. No one is invincible, and, no matter what you believe, it can happen to you. Be conscious of your environment. If you don’t understand a rule or a procedure, ask about it instead of assuming that it’s unnecessary or unduly cumbersome. The more you know and understand, the easier it becomes to see that the benefit does not always outweigh the risk.
What Can We Do?
As employees, we have a responsibility to treat rules and regulations with respect. We are only as safe as the choices we make. Don’t be afraid to speak out, if you see an unsafe behavior. Say something. You might save a life. Candace was lucky – she survived. Now, she travels across North America as a keynote speaker, sharing her story as an advocate for safety. There are thousands of others who have been less fortunate.
Obligations aren’t exclusive to employees – organizations also have a responsibility to discourage unsafe behavior. As part of an organization, you can make the rules easier to follow and set your employees up for success. Ensure that rules, especially those involving safety, are clear, concise and easy to follow. Limit the most crucial rules, be consistent, and set an example. Make sure hazards are clear and well communicated. Promote understanding and never set goals so lofty or make rewards so enticing that your employees are willing to cut corners to reach them.