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September 16, 2020

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Reader letter

‘People are not risk averse enough for our liking’

Why it is so difficult to get people to follow instructions that are there for their safety? These are often very simple instructions, so why do they ignore safety rules and cut corners? Group Health and Safety Manager, Joe Smith, responds to a recent SHP article about behavioural safety progress.

Joe Smith

Joe Smith (Grad IOSH), Group Health and Safety Manager.

“I read with interest Subash Ludhra’s article recently ‘Is our health and safety focus aimed at the wrong generation?’ It struck a chord with my own line of thought. Having risk awareness needs to be something people have as part of who they are, not something we expect people to turn on once they get to work.

“I often wonder why it is so difficult to get people to follow instructions that are there for their safety? These are often very simple instructions, so why do they ignore safety rules and cut corners?

“People are quick to say they’re not paid enough to work harder or to take on extra responsibility, yet they’re prepared to put their lives on the line for nothing. It just doesn’t seem to make any sense. It only starts to make some sense when we look at how we approach safety compliance. We are so focussed on the employer’s duties that we don’t consider what people are like outside of work as individuals. We only think of the individual in the context of an employee, a resource that we should be able to control like any other resource or process. We seem to miss a vital consideration, and that is people’s individual attitudes towards risk. Those attitudes are what that person has grown up with, it’s how they were raised and it’s an integral part of who they are and their identity.

“Often, the problem is that people are generally are not risk averse enough for our liking. They underestimate the level of risk, concentrating on the likelihood of the accident, rather than the potential severity should it occur. Daily activities and lack of consequence then compounded to reinforce their belief that life is safe.

“People think that because an activity or situation doesn’t lead to an accident immediately that it is obviously safe. When the safety advisor tells someone that something is unsafe, but they do it once and no adverse event happens. That ‘proves’ to them that the health and safety advisor is, as always, overreacting. And this belief is reinforced each and every time they do it and get away with it.”

Taking risks

ladder“People take risks all the time and get away with it. This leads them to believe that the risk is much lower than the safety advisor is trying to make it look. Both at work, and in their daily lives away from work. People speed when driving; people have unprotected sex; generally, people don’t put up scaffolding to paint the hallway, they hang from the bannister. The more they break the rules and aren’t involved in a car crash, don’t catch a sexually transmitted disease, and don’t fall down the stairs, the more it reinforces the notion that situations are safer than they actually are.

“To compound the situation, it is the case that when you do something you know is obviously unsafe. For example, getting to that awkward couple of square feet in the corner of the hallway to paint it. With one foot on the wall and the other on the bannister, you lean over and just manage to reach without making a mess of the ceiling too. You’ll be particularly careful and most probably get away with it. The difference with the work environment though, is that task is probably not once every five years, but weekly, or daily. And each time it’s carried out the need to be careful diminishes as it starts to feel totally safe the more you do it without an adverse event occurring.”

Societal problems

“So, if we really want to make progress in health and safety, I don’t believe that it can be solved by employers alone. The problem is much deeper than that, it’s societal. To use a common every-day activity as an example; How often do you see motorists not indicating? People speed, they drink alcohol, they still use their mobile phones whilst driving. Yet there are life changing accidents involving cars every single day. Not doing these things should be blatantly obvious, yet many are ignorant to the risk. And then when they enter the workplace, we are responsible for their behaviour. We are trying to re-educate a person when their attitudes towards safety are already well ingrained in them.

“Getting people to work safely and have healthy proportionate attitudes towards risk will work better when it is part of who the person is, not a way of behaving that we try to impose on a person. As such, the sooner we can start to do this with people, the better. As for the generations currently in the workplace it may well be that we have to battle on with our current methods.”

By Joe Smith (Grad IOSH), Group Health and Safety Manager.

This article was written in response to Subash Ludhra’s piece, ‘Is our health and safety focus aimed at the wrong generation?’, which you can read in full, here.

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Simon Dean
Simon Dean
3 years ago

It’s all about personal consequences and promoting the positive reasons to do something safe rather than the negative for doing something unsafely. We do it with our children “sit too close to the TV and you will go blind”, cigarette packets tell you how dangerous they are, wear PPE of doom and gloom will happen. We sell safety with negative images, which never work. You hear of guest speakers telling how they lost and arm and their life changed, the moment people have gone for a break all they are interested in “what’s for lunch”. All the top brands sell… Read more »

Pete Williams
Pete Williams
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Dean