Safety Matters: Factors that lead to unsafe attitudes

Safety policies and practices

By Donald H. Seiler, CIH, CSP, The Dow Chemical Company, Personal Safety Expertise Center

A wise industrial hygienist once told me that a safety program is directly impacted by human resources policies and practices. How you manage people has a huge impact on their attitude about working safely as does how they feel management values their work contributions.

Personal experiences have an impact on the attitude workers bring with them to the job site. If someone has worked for a company that emphasizes production over safety, that will have a long-standing impact on future decisions they make. If a worker is distracted by their personal life and they bring that with them to the job, it can influence their approach toward working safely. 

Also to be considered are the dynamics of work populations. For instance, more experienced workers may have to deal with safety standards that are becoming increasingly rigorous and less risk tolerant. Safety expectations are greater today than they were a decade ago and risks that once may have been acceptable are now no longer tolerated. These same workers may have been benefiting from shortcuts for years (with no negative consequences), thus they are more apt to take risks. Also, as workers age, their capability to perform certain tasks may change and they may be taking risks without realizing it. 

Inexperienced workers may have learned unsafe work habits at previous worksites or in school. They may have taken risks with safety and been rewarded for the outcome. Some individuals get a personal rush from beating the odds. Sometimes it’s a macho attitude — ”I’m indestructible, it won’t happen to me.” For other workers, it might come down to personal gain. Taking unreasonable risks may enable them to more quickly get on to doing other things they’d rather be doing. Some workers may simply misunderstand what’s truly important.

There are workers who may have an improper attitude toward using personal protective equipment (PPE) and believe the discomfort or inconvenience of PPE outweighs the risk of not using, or improperly using, their PPE. The employer can continually look for better or more comfortable equipment, but sometimes it just doesn’t exist. When you’re balancing the risk of exposure versus discomfort, you always have to err on the side of safety. Chemical and physical agents will cause harm — it’s a risk that can’t be taken.

Some folks view safety as a form of bureaucracy and believe “following the rules” just takes longer. They might see a safe work permit as simply needing a piece of paper in their pocket without understanding that the permit is a risk assessment that ensures proper controls are utilized. The challenge with these individuals is to try to get them to see the personal value in executing safety systems effectively. They must understand the impact of their choices on their families and their co-workers. Their personal choice to take unnecessary risks can have a huge impact on others.

The employer plays a critical role in creating a safety-oriented environment and culture. It takes a willing participant to work within this environment to gain maximum value from the safety systems provided.  

The unsafe leader
One of the most difficult situations a worker can find themselves in is having to confront a leader. Given the option, many people instinctively avoid this situation. In our organization, all individuals are empowered and expected to intervene and respond to unsafe acts and behaviors. Collectively and as a culture, we stop activities which are likely to result in injuries and illness. We hold each other accountable for ensuring this happens daily. Having open and accessible communication routes, which support open dialogue at multiple leader levels, is essential to managing the “unsafe leader.” While pressure to produce is always in the background, doing so in a safe manner must be part of the core decision-making process.

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