Rules are so easy to make. So easy that they proliferate and the safety offices that produce them are often accused of being a “Rule Mill” because they continuously produce their “rules-of-the month”. Why do we create so many rules? Most, if not all, of us don’t like rules that become overly restrictive. Our employees are the same way.
Instead, employees prefer discretion over the way they do their tasks. And, to be frank with you, without this discretion employees cannot help you find new ways to do their tasks safely.
Rules are designed to keep us safe and are made by well-meaning folks thinking through potential risks in the face of hazards. In the end, rules are good for all of us. So the pertinent question is “how do we get people to follow the rules?”
What REALLY changed my behavior?
even when no one else is watching?
Well, it happened in my 30s when I was out mowing on nice Saturday afternoon. The kids were in the garage and I was fully outfitted with PPE… or so I thought. I was about halfway done with the lawn when my youngest, then around 8 years old, came running out to me waving. I put out my hand for him to stop and turned off the mower. What happened next changed my life. I still get choked up telling it.
“One key to an ideal safety culture that drastically reduces injuries is for everyoneto take responsibility for safety.” All the southern ladies in the room nodded vigorously to my statement. They were taking time off their shift at a feminine hygiene products plant to discuss safety with me.
I have a trick I like to play on groups like this and I had these ladies right where I wanted them. And the lesson got delivered: By not taking personal responsibility to report a near miss, the hazard does not get fixed or the work process does not get altered...and this led to an injury.
“I don’t know how it happened. I guess I just got complacent and before I knew it I was in trouble”.
When you ask someone who experienced a close call you tend to hear some version of the word “complacency” as an explanation for their action. Likewise, frustrated managers who have to investigate incidents scratch their head when they suspect “human error” as the cause of the event and then blame the worker for being complacent.
Go and look at your incident investigation forms. Taken as a whole it seems like complacency is pervasive – the #1 cause of injury.
This is because we simplify and say that our workers have become complacent in their tasks. The problem is that we really don’t know what “complacency” is or what to do about it.
Unfortunately, just labeling someone as “complacent” does not lead us to a solution that reduces the risks. Often the complacent individual is told to “pay more attention.” But we are exhorting them to go against human nature…to stop being an animal. And they can’t.
Complacency shouldn’t be an exit strategy… the end of your analysis.
So lets consider another approach to complacency from a behavioral science perspective.
Who has been in a training class where some consultant is teaching you about “Culture”? Admit it, you nodded along with everyone else feigning understanding and then probably started using the term around your boss and colleagues to pretend that you knew what it was. But, in reality, deep down inside where these things are hidden, you admit to yourself that you really, really don’t know what this term really means.
The reason you don’t is because you don’t know how to use the term to make things better. You don’t know how to “operate” using the term. Operations in your business, in any business, are how things get done. We have trouble describing “culture” in a way that, well, gets things done to reduce injuries.
I argue to anyone who will listen that safety culture is not some value-laden, touchy-feely, fuzzy construct of an imaginary utopia. Instead, safety culture is people talking about safety and listening to each other. Simple, huh?
The question here is: how effectively are these safety management systems at influencing the critical talking that needs to go on between and among your employees and managers?
Dr. Ludwig was interviewed by Dan Clark after his speech Are their Gaps in your Safety Systems: Lessons from Shawshank. This is a rebroadcast of that 30-minute interview by permission from Safety Experts Talk.
Listen to Dr. Ludwig's recent podcast Are the GAPS in your Safety System first and then dive into the interview for more conversation on the topic of latent hazards and complancent risks.
Are there latent hazards and risks that our safety systems are unequipped to identify? This may be a good time for us to ask a critical question:
Your safety management systems act like the structure of a building aimed at reducing risk. These systems can fail due to lack of participation. They needed more rebar. Ask yourself: What behaviors do you need to build into your safety processes? What must you reinforce?
I get asked to visit companies and diagnose why their behavioral safety program has “lost steam” or never got off the ground to begin with. Inevitably, I find the whole program is run by the safety department and few anointed safety enthusiasts who do the observations or supervisors, who have observations cards to complete on top of mounds of other paperwork. Employee involvement is nonexistent.