Workplace safety – that’s all been taken care of by your management systems, standardised operating procedures, defined safe practices, business models, corporate strategy, and rules and regulations. Right? To a point. Such methods can only go so far in reducing the number of injuries and illnesses at work, as they can’t get to the root of their main cause: people. Research by DuPont found that 82% of workplace incidents come down to poor decision-making. So how can you manage this most intangible of influences?
You can’t just rely on behavioural safety management
The modern safety movement began back in the 1970s with a few basic premises: organisations have to establish and convey expectations regarding behaviours in the workplace; monitor how well people are conforming to those standards; and adopt a way of feeding back to the workforce to make sure everyone sticks to it.
But these days the amount of resources and available time for such tasks has diminished, just as organisations have become far more complex – businesses of all kinds now have operations spanning borders, and a huge number of individuals operate remotely. All of which makes establishing standards and processes, not to mention monitoring and feedback, way more difficult.
A look under the bonnet
It turns out that intangible factors like emotion, gut feeling and past experience play a massive part in our judgment and decisions – like how an employee will decide it’s fine to drive at 15mph over the speed limit because they’ve neither crashed nor received a ticket, because they did the same thing in the past.
Such thinking has some striking implications for workplace safety: tasks perceived as low risk typically involve the highest frequency of injury. A study conducted by T Dell and J Berkhout found that injuries in one company were 88% more likely to occur in a job perceived as "safe", compared to the workforce’s interpretation of the site’s most dangerous task. But as gut feeling and past experience are illogical, they don’t exactly sit easily on a risk management spreadsheet.
So how to change things?
Facilities are not just operated by us humans – we also design, build and maintain them. So anyone wishing to improve safety processes has to fully understand what people are doing at work and how they’re interacting with the equipment, facilities and management systems – and even each other and the company culture – as well the factors that motivate people and influence their decision-making.
Given that our intuitive, experientially-based responses tend to rule our actions, labelling a behaviour as "unsafe", when it may have been performed thousands of times before without incident, can be problematic. Instead of targeting the head, via logic and instruction, companies need to go via the heart: images, personal stories, and experiential techniques that move your workforce will pack an effective emotional punch that’ll inspire people to act differently. Take the aviation industry. Commercial airline crashes due to pilot error sat at 65% for more than 50 years. But since 1990, when the industry added experiential learning to pilot training via flight simulators, that’s dropped by more than 54%. The field now demonstrates fewer than 3.4 defects per million opportunities.
Companies can’t monitor their employees round the clock. Even if they could, supervision doesn’t work as well as changing habitual and instinctive behaviour from the start. This means understanding and focusing on people’s inherent behaviours, characteristics, needs, abilities and limitations. People may be complicated, but they’re definitely worth protecting.