Safety Consciousness

By Pamela Babcock Jul 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, July 2005 Helping workers keep safety on the brain requires constant reinforcement and recognition of basic human psychology.

It may not sound like much -- a rusty hole in a lid. But when the lid is on a nuclear reactor and the hole developed from a long-unnoticed coolant leak, there is an enormous workplace safety problem.

In fact, discovery of that rusty hole—and other safety issues—led to a two-year shutdown of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, near Toledo, Ohio. According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports, there was evidence of complacency and inattention pervading the plant’s operations. And the commission noted in approving Davis-Besse’s restart last year that the company operating the plant admitted that the damage stemmed from, among other things, an inadequate focus on safety and insufficient corrective measures.

Certainly, lax attitudes about workplace safety pose greater dangers in the nuclear power industry than in other enterprises, but no business can afford to ignore efforts to instill safety consciousness throughout its workforce.

Serious work-related injuries cost employers almost $1 billion a week in 2002, according to the Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.’s latest Workplace Safety Index. The study found that employees are experiencing fewer but costlier injuries than in the past. The number of workplace injuries causing workers to miss six or more workdays fell by 0.7 percent in 2002 from the previous year, but the costs of those injuries increased by 6.5 percent after adjusting for wage and medical-cost inflation.

A culture of safety awareness aimed at minimizing workplace injuries not only can hold workers’ comp and medical expenses in check but also can help employers avoid liability for negligence, increase morale and productivity, and cut absenteeism. But foremost, most HR professionals agree, safety is simply the right thing to do.

“Our role in promoting the HR culture and safe work practices is all about protecting the employees from injury, pain and death,” says Christopher C. Rolfe, vice president of human resources for Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C. “I think it’s a real integrity issue in how we represent the interest of our employees.”

So how can HR professionals and other company leaders ensure that employees take safety seriously day in and day out? How can they create an environment that promotes safety over the long run?

Many companies create systems—some quite elaborate—for ensuring the safety of their workers and their workplaces, as did the operators of Davis-Besse. But unless safety is central to the company’s culture and becomes an essential component of every employee’s duties, such systems may have little effect.

“Creating a culture of safety is a long and challenging journey,” says Amy Edmondson, a Harvard University business professor whose research includes issues of workplace safety. “It’s not something you get done overnight. But it actually can be done.”

A Core value

Like any worthwhile policy, experts say, safety must be an important part of a company’s culture as well as an organizational priority for its leaders. And, as with any good policy, “HR has a critical role” in translating that priority into action, Rolfe says.

HR’s participation, he explains, can involve developing a vision, mission statements and strategic plans; providing training, staff development and procedures; and enlisting top management for meaningful safety presentations. Many organizations make safety an aspect on which employees and managers are evaluated in their performance reviews.

“The extent to which we hard-wire safety into those systems goes a long way in ensuring that that culture gets fully deployed,” says Rolfe.

Safety must be a practice, not just a theory, experts agree, and the best way to communicate its importance within the workforce is to take corrective action immediately when a safety issue arises. In fact, inaction delivers the opposite message—that safety is not as important as management says it is.

The goal of developing safety consciousness within the workforce, experts add, requires continual reinforcement at every level—not just for front-line workers. Safety must “get into the DNA,” says Edmondson. She cites an example of a major corporation that has done just that—and how astonished she was at first when she saw the company’s safety consciousness at work. During her visit to the DuPont company—long heralded as a leader in worker safety—at its corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Del., senior managers started a meeting by pointing out the exit doors.

“I remember almost starting to laugh because I thought they were making fun of themselves or being playful,” Edmondson recalls. “Then I had this kind of sudden awareness that they were serious, that this was second nature, and this is what they do routinely.”

Throughout the day, safety continued to be reinforced, Edmondson says. For example, after she got in the back of a car to go to lunch with the managers, she wondered why the engine had not yet started. The driver, she learned, was waiting to hear the click of all the passengers’ seatbelts before putting the key into the ignition.

A State of Mind

Even if a company has a workplace safety program in place, safety can take a back seat—as when employees deliberately bypass or compromise safety systems, or when they inadvertently neglect to comply with program requirements. Part of the reason, experts say, is human nature: No one can maintain ultrahigh vigilance constantly.

There may be elements of basic psychology involved as well. Fundamentally, we don’t believe anything bad will happen to us, Edmondson says. “We’re fairly skilled at inhibiting our awareness of a physical threat to self. It’s more comfortable to tune it out than to pay attention to it, so we downplay the possibility of a threat. Our brains have several mechanisms that help us do that.”

That behavior is even more prevalent in groupthink, Edmondson says. “We’re … exquisitely good at downplaying the possibility of threat in groups. It just feels better to reinforce each other’s positive belief that the situation is going to work out fine.”

When a group or organization magnifies this threat-denial dynamic—instead of providing checks and balances—it further limits “our awareness of what isn’t safe and what’s going wrong and our ability to change it and make it better,” Edmondson says.

Safety can’t be a mindless habit; it requires mindfulness, says E. Scott Geller, alumni distinguished professor of psychology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and author of 12 books on the psychology of safety. “The term mindfulness is critical because it says you have to talk to yourself while you’re doing the behavior, or plan ahead what you will do next.”

Ellen Langer, a Harvard University psychology professor who has written on the subject of mindfulness, says research over the past three decades shows that workers are not thinking while at their jobs as often as they probably think they are.

A key concept in convincing employees of the need to practice safety day after day, Langer says, is respect for uncertainty. “The way to be mindful is to actively notice new things. The rules that are given should guide, rather than govern, their behavior.” Mindfulness, Langer continues, is different from vigilance, which involves a potentially exhausting level of concentration and a clear image of particular hazards. In its extreme, she says, vigilance can actually undermine safety. If you focus totally on ducking the branches while riding a horse through the woods, you won’t notice the boulders until your horse trips and you’re thrown.

“What you want,” Langer says, “is what we can call a soft focus, and this results from drawing novel distinctions. Being mindful in this way keeps us situated in the present. As such, accidents are less likely.”

Responding to Risks

Thus, while a lax approach to workplace safety can lead to problems, an overly rigid approach can be unhealthy as well. Rigidity can backfire if it burns out workers and fails to inspire them to actively pursue safety, experts suggest. For example, companies that track the number of days without an accident and reward employees for reaching certain milestones might be encouraging deception rather than safety. Workers could feel pressured to avoid reporting an incident so they don’t ruin the bonus for everyone.

“You can get a culture that’s so rigid and so procedurally oriented that ideas and communications that could enhance safety get stifled and people get process-oriented, rather than truly safety-oriented,” says Rolfe. “It’s the key role of HR to ensure that those communications are occurring.”

Several experts say management and HR professionals should focus on getting people to openly and candidly report unsafe behaviors because small failures are gold for mining. Close calls are where people can learn without the terrible emotions that accompany tragedy.

“If you want to create a safe workplace, the most important thing is to get the data,” says Edmondson. “You want to reward reporting over and above safety, initially. The data is going to look worse for a while, but your world didn’t actually get less safe. You just started to hear about it.

“Organizations are pretty good at learning from major mishaps. When something bad happens, we put together a commission or a task force. But what we don’t do a good job of learning from are small failures—the little things that go wrong that we recover from. We never stop to think, ‘How could this have been caused? What should we do differently so that it doesn’t happen again?’ ”

Maryanne Spicer, director of corporate compliance at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, says key concepts in fostering a culture of workplace safety include consistency and commitment to true change. “Do you promote transparency on every level? Or are you someone who says one thing and winks? Your walk and your talk have to be the same. If you say, ‘We care about this,’ and someone comes forward and says, ‘We have a problem,’ you have to pay attention, give feedback and publicize those things in the workplace.”

The Human Factor

The first step in establishing a safety culture is hiring safe people, says Kevin Naylor, SPHR, assistant vice president for HR development at Union Pacific Railroad Co. in Omaha, Neb. The company does behavior-based interviews, which include at least one question on safety awareness and safety history.

“We’re particularly interested where people have been challenged in previous work situations to maybe cut corners to meet production goals, rather than to take the safe course of action, and ask how they handled that situation,” Naylor says.

Virginia Tech’s Geller, who also heads Safety Performance Solutions, a consulting firm in Blacksburg, says “getting the right people on the bus” is easier said than done. In many industries, there is no accurate selection tool to determine who is going to be a safe employee. He advocates observing employees on the job as a way to encourage them to adopt a culture of workplace safety.

First, he says, be communicative and supportive with employees. “If we really want people to take safety seriously, talk about it day in and day out,” Geller says. “We want people to report their minor injuries and their close calls.” But it won’t happen, he believes, unless you keep the atmosphere from becoming confrontational or patronizing.

Second, Geller says, don’t convey a “gotcha” attitude when observing employees. He advocates using a behavioral checklist and telling employees, “I’m going to watch you work and check off what you’re doing safely and what’s risky.”

Third, analyze the risky behavior that you observe. In using a checklist, include the circumstances, the environment, and whether factors such as excessive demands or barriers to safe behavior were involved.

Fourth, show the employees the checklist and say, “Here’s what I found. Do you have any questions?” Don’t pass judgment; don’t even give advice. The focus is on asking questions and listening, Geller says. “If you force change on people or are too directive, they will not internalize that change.”

Last, Geller says, help employees through feedback. Give them time to respond; make it a two-way exchange. Providing feedback, he says, is “the only way to improve behavior.” Employees must be encouraged to understand that safety is not just a personal matter; when one worker is careless about safety, everybody can be in danger. Workers must understand that it’s not just their own well-being at stake when they take a shortcut, and that they could be at risk when someone else does.

Says Geller: “Safety is interpersonal, interdependent. It’s depending on each other so that we all remain injury-free.”


Pamela Babcock, a freelance writer in the New York City area, has been a reporter for The Washington Post and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and has worked in corporate communications.

Web Extras

Language Barriers

Virginia Tech psychology professor E. ​Scott Geller says some of the language used in the field of safety is “debilitating and holds us back.” For example, he prefers the term “incident” rather than “accident.” The word “accident” suggests that the incident couldn’t be avoided, when often it could have been. 

Geller also dislikes statements such as, “We’re going to investigate to find the root cause of this accident.” It’s “confrontational—and wrong,” Geller maintains. After the Challenger space shuttle exploded during its launch, it became common to say O-rings were the root cause, he says, but behavioral and environmental factors also played a big part. “Looking for a root cause passes the buck: ‘It’s not me; there’s another root cause out there.’ ” 

Geller prefers the term “contributing factors,” since almost every injury has human dynamics or psychology as a contributing factor, not to mention environmental and management-system factors.

“Safety, like anything else, needs to be sold,” Geller says. “How we talk influences how we feel about getting involved. There’s a lot of negative language in the field of safety that really turns people off.”

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