“The power of one man or one woman doing the right thing for the right reason, at the right time, is the greatest influence in our society.”  — Jack Kemp

What would you do if you witnessed an unsafe or prohibited act? Would you intervene or report it to someone who could intervene? Ethical obligations persuade us that we should say yes, but even if we each want to do the right thing, can each of us confidently say we would? Often, we instead choose to look the other way.

Why Are We Scared?

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t hesitate.  We’d step in when we see an unsafe act.  However, it’s not a perfect world and we do hesitate.  Why?  Societal pressure plays a role.  No one wants to be the snitch or be the one to correct our peers.  Both actions influence the way others see and relate to us.

We are taught to conform to societal expectations from a young age.  In many of us, this internalizes a desire to “fit it” and be well liked or well received or both.  We believe in this so strongly that actions such as “tattling” or “nagging” are taboo.  However, sometimes intervention or reporting is necessary.  Would it be different if you knew that your voice would save a life?

Often, we don’t see the bigger picture.  We focus instead on what matters to us in that moment – being liked and accepted by our peers.  It’s important to learn how to take a step back to see a situation in its entirety– and to recognize that sometimes a shift in priorities is required. If you see an unsafe behavior, you have three choices: intervene, report the behavior, or remain silent.  What you choose has a big impact.

Intervening

“Intervention” means “to occur or be between two things.”  In this case, between peers and harm.  If you’re a parent, you’re a master of intervention.  However, intervening with coworkers is much more difficult than intervening with a child, even though the goal – keeping them safe – is the same.  It’s so difficult, in fact, that a survey found that employees intervene in only 2 of 5 observed unsafe acts.

There were two primary reasons respondents gave for not intervening when they saw something unsafe.  First, they were afraid that the person they’re intervening with would become defensive or angry.  Second, they were afraid that the intervention wouldn’t make a difference.  In other words, a large number of employees do not intervene when they see something unsafe because they either are, or believe themselves to be, incapable of doing so effectively.  They don’t believe they can intervene in a way that stops and changes the other person’s unsafe behavior while also preserving a respectful working relationship.

Intervention by anyone can be effective.  It’s important to educate a workforce on how to intervene successfully so they have the tools they need to confidently step in if they see an unsafe act in progress.  No matter the role of the individual, here are three ways to intervene effectively:

  • Be positive. Body language and tone of voice play a big role in how others receive us.  Avoid criticism and discipline and you won’t be met with anger and resistance.
  • Choose your words carefully. Don’t single a person out.  Use words like “us” or “we” instead of “you”.  When possible, address and educate a group instead of an individual.  Avoid shaming and don’t put anyone on the spot.
  • Timing is critical. It’s not always possible to intervene in the moment in a way that doesn’t address a person directly and embarrass them.  Of course, assess the danger and ensure that everyone is out of harm’s way.  Then, when the intervention can be handled more delicately at a later, more private, time without compromising the safety of one or more individuals, it will be more welcome.  However, if you have to intervene in the moment, be positive and choose your words thoughtfully.

Proper interventions can save lives.  It might be uncomfortable, but sometimes it’s necessary.  Use your voice.  Remember that you’re trying to help and there’s a chance the person might not know they were being unsafe at all.

Reporting

If you believe that your intervention will be ineffective, reporting unsafe acts is an alternative.  Unsafe acts often go unreported because employees don’t want to “tattle.”  But, just like intervening, what you report can save lives.  A good supervisor will be happy to hear from you.  In fact, many companies encourage reporting with policies and procedures and also offer confidential and anonymous reporting options.

If you feel as though you are unable to report unsafe behavior to any of your superiors, or if it’s unsafe conditions you are concerned about, you have another option.  You have the right to file a confidential safety and health complaint and request an OSHA inspection of your workplace if you believe there is a serious hazard or if you think your employer is not following OSHA standards.  You can file a complaint by calling your local OSHA Regional Office.

Reporting unsafe practices and work conditions is tricky.  Something that seems unsafe to you might be normal for others.  You can be sure you are reporting unsafe practices and conditions in such a manner that others get a clear picture by following these tips.

  • Use clear to-the-point language. Don’t be ambiguous when making a report.  The more straight forward you are, the easier it is to identify and correct the problem.
  • State facts. Don’t blame anyone.  Blame doesn’t solve the problem and you may not be aware of the entirety of the situation.
  • Include as much information as possible. Be specific.  Use facts such as time of day, actual process to be followed, exact issue faced, number of people present, machines used and any other information.  The more facts you provide, the more weight the claim carries.
  • Keep emotions separate. No matter how you feel about the situation, it’s important to remain calm and level-headed.  Don’t make reports out of anger or spite, and don’t embellish for the same reasons.  Stay focused on the issue.

No matter how you choose to report, don’t be afraid to speak up.  A healthy safety culture encourages such moves.  If employees are afraid to report, it’s time for a reevaluation of your program.

Silence

I had an elementary school teacher that had a sign hanging at the front of her classroom.  It read “Silence is golden.” Under certain circumstances, like in the classroom, silence is valuable.  However, it can also prove to be an obstacle that prevents improving safety performance.  When you’ve witnessed unsafe behavior, silence can even be deadly.  If you could save a life, wouldn’t you?  By speaking up, you can.  When you see an unsafe behavior and choose to remain quiet, not only are you letting someone risk injury to themselves or others, you’re offering tacet approval.  If you can’t condone their actions, find your voice.  Don’t be the person left carrying the guilt, thinking “If only I had said something.”  Silence is never the answer.  It might be difficult or uncomfortable, but you can choose to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Employee Encouragement and Empowerment

Research indicates that when they see something unsafe, employees only speak up about forty percent of the time. This number tends to hold true across different industries, countries, and cultures.  Forty percent isn’t good enough.  Your safety culture is successful when employees aren’t just expected to speak up when something is unsafe, but they actually do.

Empower your employees to intervene and report.  Remove obstacles and challenges and create an environment where employees have a desire to bring awareness to unsafe behaviors.  Instead of becoming defensive when another worker speaks up, train your employees to recognize the importance of safety interventions and to see them from a different perspective. No workplace can afford silence.  “Later” may be too late for addressing an unsafe behavior.