Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is professor at Plymouth University. He is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture. As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names, Tim has worked with the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV and the National Theatre, and has chaired more than two dozen conferences on behavioural safety in the UK.  He has written three books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety and Total Safety Culture. Tim is a co-founder Ryder-Marsh Safety. Now MD Anker & Marsh.
March 9, 2017

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Video: dispelling the myth – positive people are NOT safer people

Professor Tim Marsh explores the reasons why positive people are actually not safer. Why? Quite simply because “positive people get stuck in”. See Tim’s video and article below.


The elastic band model

Reason’s overstretched elastic band model suggests that maintaining a genuine balance between safety and the productive dynamism required to compete and evolve requires effort. Extrinsic factors make this difficult – like competition local and/or foreign, raw material price changes, legislation changes, inclement weather and contractors who talk a great fight at bid but then prove problematic. Thn there are intrinsic factors like competence, systems weaknesses or omissions, job design, resources, culture and interface issues like the selection of those problematic contractors!

The model suggests that in a complex world it is likely that even the best organisations will be liable to drift away from balance and into a ‘vulnerable’ place where risk is too high and the likelihood of someone getting hurt too great. Everything we do in the name of safety feeds into one simple metric therefore. How quickly do we spot that we have drifted and how quickly and efficiently can we snap back into balance. Walk and talks, accident investigations, pre-accident investigations, behavioural safety, safety culture enhancement work, safety leadership training, even basic soft skills training all feed into this simple KPI.

Using a large rope to illustrate this principle can add energy to a training session but volunteers nearly always start to compete, usually around the first time I say ‘thank you for letting them drift, you can snap them back now’! Even if an unofficial tug of war doesn’t break out whilst I’m explaining the model it’s really not at all difficult to persuade them to go for one – especially if the ‘winning team’ are promised free books or if different nationalities, regions, trades etc are involved. This allows the presenter to jump in quickly, grab the rope and ask ‘What are you all doing? This is a bloody safety conference…!’ then point out that to get people to take risks that they shouldn’t, you simply have to ask them. In short: ‘It’s not the people in the rope exercise it’s the person in charge of the rope exercise’ – with reference of course to the Just Culture model and the many organisational cause of violations. I’ve always also liked to point out that ‘these lovely volunteers that jumped up to help me out are hardly the worst of us are they?


Positivity and safety

Recently, however, some fascinating data from a major ‘positivity’ study in the United States throws this last observation in a new light. It seems that people with good attitudes – i.e. positive, optimistic, and with a strong locus of control, do not have fewer accidents than their more negative and fatalistic counterparts. My initial thought was that surely that can’t be right? That’s just taken as read isn’t it? Certainly there are lots of positive behaviours that do flow from a positive mind-set: they recover more quickly from injury, take less time off sick, come to work with a bad back and do stretching exercises in the corridor, contribute better to accident investigations and problem solving, show more ‘above the line’ or citizenship behaviour and prove excellent trainees – but they don’t have fewer accidents. Yes, if shown why they should or shouldn’t do something with data and illustration they’ll learn from that. (So are first into hurricane shelters for example). But something counterbalances this on a day to day basis.

Two factors seem to be key:

One factor is that it’s long been known that pessimists have a more accurate world view than pessimists. A touch of overconfidence is the default setting of our species generally and overall that’s stood us in very good stead. At this point we could of course consider risk assessments formal and dynamic and how it’s long been known that a dedicated ‘nay sayer’ can help prevent group think but this short article is about point 2. The second, and rather startling point, has always been staring us in the face but I’ve never heard it mentioned before. With obvious links to risk homeostasis theory and risk tolerance / appetite literature, the bottom line is that positive people tend to get stuck in. Of course they do – we see examples all the time. We’ve even filmed one for you!

As well as the need for very specific and illustrated safety training as above this is more support for the Just Culture approach and the union argument that safety approaches shouldn’t even be primarily person focused. For example: Formula One showed a massive step change in accident rate following the weekend Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger died because, traumatised by events, the industry ensured that their world class engineers worked on safety as well as speed and made many design changes that made it much harder for people to hurt themselves even if the new safety features made them push even harder than before! What they certainly didn’t do was persuade a single driver to slow down.


Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing

Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.

This free director’s briefing contains:

  • Key points;
  • Recommendations for employers;
  • Case law;
  • Legal duties.
Barbour EHS

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Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper
3 years ago

Hi Tim

Good job. Please could you provide the reference for the “Positivity” study?

best wishes

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
3 years ago

I’ll send you the graph Dom.

Daniel S.
Daniel S.
2 years ago
Reply to  Tim Marsh

Hi Tim! I’d be interested in the reference for the study as well.

Oliver Mellors
Oliver Mellors
3 years ago

Nice article Tim. Reminds me of a core human factors principle – “to err is human” even the best trained, highly motivated people make mistakes.

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
3 years ago
Reply to  Oliver Mellors

Thanks Oliver. It’s worth considering books like ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed here and the essence of learning – because most innovation is based on the principle of trial and error. Innovators are almost defined by their relish for ‘giving it a go’.

2 years ago

like it, good job