Saturday, August 1, 2015

Caring About Safety Isn’t Enough

If you peruse LinkedIn discussion groups, safety magazines, or any other place where people talk
about safety problems they are having a common theme in many of the suggested solutions has to do with people’s level of “care” about safety. Got a problem with employees breaking rules? It’s probably because they don’t care enough about safety. Management not “walking the talk”? We need to get them to really care about safety! If management doesn’t care then nothing will work, right?

Now this seems to make sense, because one can draw an intuitive easy correlation between a person’s motivation and doing something. So if we can get someone to care more about something then they will do it. For example, if you get someone to care a lot about a social cause, then we would predict that they will perform behaviors to support that social cause. So if we extrapolate this to the safety world, if someone cares a lot about safety, then they will behave safely.

The problem is that this isn’t necessarily true. We’ve dealt with many organizations and we have yet to find a single one where people in the organization explicitly told us that they don’t really care about their or others’ safety. Now, keep in mind that we have had organizations tell us that they don’t really care about “safety” but every time what they mean is they don’t care about regulatory standards or similar versions of “safety”. When it comes to actually caring about people they unanimously do.

Sure we can question whether or not what they are saying is true (perhaps they are lying to us), but we have no real reason to consider our clients liars, so we take them at their word. Even if we concede though that there are some who are lying and that there are indeed people who don’t care about safety, we must point out that we have plenty of clients who actually really are adamant that they care about safety a whole lot and there is evidence to prove that they do.

The thing is though that even these people who really genuinely care about safety often still continue to have the problems we mentioned above – employees breaking rules and managers not “walking the talk”.

What gives?

Now the tendency for many will be to question (again) the motives of the people (they don’t really care). But lets just consider the alternative for a minute – that perhaps it’s our belief that is flawed, not the people we’re referring to. Could it really be that caring a lot about something is not really enough to dramatically influence behavior? Consider a couple examples.

Do you care a lot about your health?

Likely, with very few exceptions, you answered yes. Consider this though, when was the last time you did something that your doctor would describe as unhealthy (e.g. eat an unhealthy meal, smoked, etc.)? When was the last time you did not do something that your doctor recommended you do (e.g., exercise)? If you’re like most, it was very recent for both questions. Perhaps simply caring a lot about your health is not good enough to get you to behave healthy.

Another example – do you care a lot about safety?

If you’re reading this blog you likely said yes, again. But when was the last time you did something that others would consider unsafe, or that you would say is unsafe if you saw someone else do it? Again, if you’re like others, it is probably not that long ago. Maybe it’s mowing the lawn without the proper PPE, maybe it’s using your phone while driving, maybe it’s forgetting to inspect your fire extinguisher and smoke detector in your home. Again though, the fact that you care a lot about safety does not seem to translate easily into your behavior.

So we are left with two options, either you’re a liar or we have to admit that our belief is probably bogus that the problem we have in our organizations is that people don’t care enough about safety.

The fact is that while general personal motivation does predict behavior, it is not a very good predictor. Why? Because our world is simply not that simple. In the safety profession we often treat safety decisions like they are made in a vacuum. We seem to think that before doing something people are actively thinking “should I do the safe thing or should I do the productive thing?” The thing is though that when people do work there is no distinction. People have to find ways to do jobs that have competing goals and still somehow meet both goals. So employees and managers doing make choices to do the safe or productive thing, they find ways to do the safe-productive thing. They make do. They satisfice. They balance competing cares with amazing skill.

Does it always work? No. Does it sometimes make us want to cringe when we see it? Yes. But does it work most of the time? YES! And that’s why they do it.

Now, this doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. It just means that telling them that the problem is that they don’t care enough is not only wrong, it’s sort of offensive. A better approach is to find ways to understand the competing goals and cares the person has and help them better manage those goals. If someone isn’t doing something that they care about it’s probably because there are barriers getting in the way. To understand what those barriers are you need to exercise a little bit of empathy and try to see the world from their perspective. Then you’ll be in a better place to help remove those barriers.


So, rather than seeing problems as a lack of care on the part of employees and managers, start seeing as a problem of unharnessed and imprisoned care. The problem is then not the people, but the context, which gives us a lot more opportunities to actually fix the problem.

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