Workers’ Attitudes Cited as Biggest Barrier to Safety

By Roy Maurer Apr 23, 2015
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Nearly all surveyed safety professionals said that their senior management is committed to safety, while a majority indicated that workers’ behaviors are the biggest barriers.

Ninety percent of 589 health and safety professionals in the U.S. surveyed for the MySafetySign Health and Safety Industry Survey indicated that their senior management considered safety important to their organizations. Nearly as many (88 percent) also said staff considered safety important. When asked about the biggest barriers to safety in the workplace, however, 51 percent cited worker attitudes, 36 percent said that staff do not understand the problems/risks at work, and 33 percent listed a lack of involvement of workers in the health and safety process.

A greater percentage of safety professionals from smaller companies, defined as having less than 100 employees, selected worker attitudes and staff not understanding the problems/risks at work more than their counterparts at larger organizations.

However, these results are controversial.

“The assumption that safety problems are worker problems rather than management, organizational, systemic or cultural problems is time-honored, but overly simplistic and misguided,” said workplace safety consultant Jim Loud. “The worker-as-barrier perspective could also reflect a largely discredited ‘blame the worker’ approach to safety. The bulk of modern safety thought has come to see unsafe behavior as a symptom of system weaknesses—not a root cause.”

Organizational resistance to change (33 percent) and lack of a safety culture (32 percent) were also cited by respondents; safety managers from smaller companies viewed these management-driven aspects as barriers to health and safety at a slightly higher rate than safety professionals from larger organizations.

Demonstrating Commitment to Safety

Ninety-two percent of safety professionals reported that senior management demonstrated a commitment to health and safety. When asked how senior leadership demonstrated its commitment, 60 percent of survey participants chose “training and induction,” 49 percent chose “regular staff meetings” and 44 percent chose “through formal organizational communications.”

“Most safety professionals are convinced that their management is both serious and committed to safety, and that managers effectively demonstrate this commitment in the workplace,” said Loud. “Safety professionals should therefore have little trouble getting buy-in for genuine safety improvement strategies assuming they make the case for them,” he said.

Worker-driven measures of demonstrating dedication to safety were significantly less popular, for example, just 19 percent selected “personal KPIs [key performance indicators]/objectives/responsibility.”

Six in 10 survey respondents selected “commitment by top management” as a significant driver of health and safety practices, followed by 42 percent listing safety culture in the organization. Despite citing worker attitudes as a key barrier to health and safety practices, one-third of respondents selected both “participation of the workforce in safety activities and decision-making” and “staff recognize the problems/risks” as key motivators for health and safety practices.

“It’s encouraging to see that the top three factors considered by safety professionals as key to motivating health and safety practices were management commitment, safety culture and workforce participation,” said Loud. These factors are key elements of most safety management systems being adopted today, he added.

Incentives vs. Punishment

Only 14 percent of respondents considered safety incentives or bonuses a motivating factor for health and safety, but a larger percentage of respondents considered these practices more effective than punitive practices or a blend of punitive and nonpunitive approaches.

Forty-two percent of respondents said that positive incentives such as prize raffles and recognition and 38 percent said a blend of punitive and nonpunitive approaches were more effective than suspension, unpaid leave or a reduction in hours. Sixteen percent found no incentives effective and 4 percent chose punishment as more effective.

A slightly larger percentage of safety professionals at smaller companies and those who have been in the industry for less than five years showed more support for incentives.

Notably, 41 percent of survey participants agreed that, hypothetically, individual workers should be subject to a portion of regulatory fines if responsible for a violation. “This indicates support for at least some punition and confirms the notion that for some safety professionals, workers are more of a burden to safety than a vital component of a thriving safety culture,” said Mike Miles, head of social strategy at SmartSign, the parent company of MySafetySign.

A habit of reporting workplace safety violations is seen as a valuable component to thriving safety cultures, according to the survey results. Seventy-two percent of respondents said that accidents either never or rarely go unreported. About one-half of respondents said they had never heard of inspectors being misled about conditions in the workplace, while 34 percent claimed it was a rare occurrence, but troublingly, 19 percent reported it was a common occurrence.

Emerging Challenges

Survey responses highlighted new challenges impacting occupational safety, such as the growing trend in many U.S. industries toward employing more temporary and contract workers, the prevalence of multiple generations of employees working side by side, and emerging technologies.

Only 43 percent of survey respondents expressed a belief that temporary or contract employees took safety seriously, as opposed to 84 percent for full-time workers.

Health and safety professionals also tended to find younger workers challenging to work with: 36 percent reported that younger workers are less concerned with safety, and 28 percent said they are easily distracted. However, 23 percent of survey respondents considered Millennials to be better with new technology than other workers.

“The rise of temporary employees is just an indicator of how quickly and profoundly our organizations are changing,” said Loud. “If the safety profession is to remain relevant it will need to change and adapt as well. Old safety traditions like command-and-control compliance and worker behavior modification schemes no longer serve us well, if they ever did.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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