“Intervention only works when the people concerned seem to be keen for peace.”  — Nelson Mandela

Why are people unsafe? Why do they engage in unsafe behaviors, especially in an industry as hazardous as the chemical industry?

Most of us are confident we know why. When asked, most people – over 80% – attribute the unsafe behaviors of others to laziness or poor motivation. Mostly, people believe that others are unsafe because they don’t want to make the effort to be safe.

The funny thing is that while almost everyone attributes the unsafe behavior of others to laziness or poor motivation, very few—less than 1 in 12—would attribute their own unsafe behavior to laziness or poor motivation.

So why do workers do things that are unsafe?

Let’s begin with the basic premise that it’s not because they have a death wish. No one gets up one morning and decides, “Today is a good day to die.” We can assume that no one wants to be hurt and that no one is so lazy or has such a bad attitude that they are willing to put their personal well-being, or for that matter, the well-being of others at jeopardy. If not profound character flaws, then, what are the reasons for unsafe acts?

The reasons for unsafe acts can be divided into the personal, or internal, reasons, and the environmental, or external. Both internal and external reasons can be further divided. Internal—personal—reasons can be characterized as unintentional and intentional. External reasons can be related either to the technical/systems environment, or to the social/cultural environment.

Unintentional Unsafe Acts

Unsafe acts that are unintentional result from lapses or mistakes. Lapses occur when someone knows what they are supposed to do, wants to do what they are supposed to do, is able to do what they are supposed to do, and yet doesn’t do what they are supposed to do. Lapses can result from distraction, preoccupation, exhaustion … you name it. No one chooses to be distracted, preoccupied, or exhausted—that’s just part of the human condition.

When a coworker does something unsafe because of this, we will usually recognize it for what it is and respond sympathetically. They’ve gotten off track and our intervention helps get them back on track. Their response is most likely going to be, “Oh,” — fill in your favorite expletive — “thanks.  That could have been bad.”

A mistake is also unintentional.  A mistake occurs when someone simply doesn’t know what to do.  Responding to these can be a little trickier, especially when your intervention suggests that they should know better and so must be stupid or incompetent. But when the intervention is presented respectfully and without judgment, you can expect for it to be well received.

Intentional Acts (That Are Unsafe)

When an act that we consider unsafe is intentional, it’s because our perception of the risk and benefit differs from our colleague’s perception of the risk and benefit. From their point of view, the benefit—saving time, higher productivity, being more comfortable—happens every time they do it. The consequences are positive, immediate, and certain. These are the three factors that are the most effective in motivating behavior. The risk, on the other hand, is associated with consequences that are negative and uncertain, and sometimes, delayed. These are the three factors that are the least effective in motivating behavior.

If an unsafe act led to certain death—always and immediately—that would be enough to overcome that the consequence is negative, and the job of encouraging safe acts would be simple. Usually though, unsafe acts don’t lead to immediate and certain death. Invoking negative consequences that rarely occur just isn’t effective.

It becomes important, then, to cast the consequences in terms of something positive, certain, and immediate.  For example, consider a conversation with someone who has years of injury-free experience, yet prefers an approach that is not as safe as the “company” approach.

“You, know, if this happens enough times, the probabilities will eventually catch up. If you set this example, others will follow you and eventually someone is going to get hurt, maybe killed.  And you’re right, it probably won’t be you. It will probably be some kid that doesn’t know any better; they just want to be like you. So even if you don’t think you need to do it for your own safety, do it for others. That way, you’ll never have to wonder if your actions led to someone else getting hurt or killed.”

Shortcomings in the Technical/Systems Environment

Unsafe acts can also result for external reasons. Fortunately, it’s relatively straightforward to remedy gaps in the technical/systems environment. But the intervention must address the gap, not the worker. If the right tools aren’t available or there has not been enough time allotted for a task, the worker is faced with an impossible choice. It’s a rare workplace where a worker hears, “We missed our deadline, but you’re safe, and that’s what’s most important.”

A helpful intervention is one that acknowledges the shortcomings of the technical/systems environment and then to takes it one step further by offering help in closing that gap.

Shortcomings in the Social/Cultural Environment

The most difficult reasons to address are the external reasons driven by the social/cultural environment of the workplace. When a worker says, “The guys will make fun of me if I do all that safety stuff,” or “This is how my supervisor does it,” or worst of all, “This place gives safety a bunch of lip-service, but doesn’t really mean it,” those are reasons that will require commitment from senior management to address.

They can’t be dismissed. It’s not a case of “That’s just their perception, that’s not reality.” It’s a case of “That’s not my perception, but it is their perception, and I’m so glad I got a glimpse from outside of my own point of view.” Then it takes real work to address.

Before We Intervene

Effective intervention hinges on a proper understanding of why a coworker is doing something unsafe or working in unsafe conditions. Unfortunately, too many of us don’t bother to find out because we’re convinced that we already know. Remember, over 80% of people attribute the unsafe behaviors of others to laziness or poor motivation. If that’s what you believe as you attempt to intervene, it’s going to shade what you say. An intervention that boils down to slogan-spouting just comes off as condescending and self-righteous.

It’s essential that before we intervene, we give our coworkers the benefit of the doubt. Think to yourself, “They don’t want to get hurt and they don’t want to hurt others. So why would they be doing something that seems so obviously unsafe to me?” Then take the time to find out before offering any advice or direction.

Your coworkers will take your interventions in the spirit they’re offered. When they sense that you are intervening because you believe they are stupid, or lazy, or have a bad attitude, they will respond defensively and angrily, and you will have failed to make anything better. When your coworkers are convinced that your interventions are genuinely motivated by concern for their well-being, they’ll take them to heart, and you will have made a difference.

Make a difference.  You can do something about safety.