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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Building a belief in safety

March 29, 2002
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This is the third article in a four-part series on strategies (37 in all) for cultivating the kinds of behaviors, beliefs, feelings and attitudes that fuel more participation in safety-related activities. All the articles are posted on ISHN's Web site: www.ishn.com. This month, let's take a look at ten more recommendations:

1) Focus on facts, not faults

Safety's traditional root cause investigation stifles the open conversation needed to analyze incidents and near-incidents. It focuses on what went wrong, and people don't want to talk about failure, especially if they suspect the finger of blame could point at them. Just as important, there really is no single root cause of an incident. Environmental, behavioral and attitudinal factors contribute to almost every injury or "near miss."

2) Diagnose carefully

I'm sure you've heard these recommendations following an investigation: "The employee will be retrained" and "The employee will be disciplined." These should be "last resort" interventions. Instead, ask these ten questions:

  • What is the discrepancy between observed and ideal performance?
  • Is change called for?
  • Can the task be simplified?
  • Are expectations clear?
  • Is performance feedback available?
  • What are the natural or intrinsic consequences?
  • Is there a skill discrepancy?
  • Is the person right for the job?
  • What kind of training is needed?
  • Which corrective action is most cost-effective?

You need to take the time to find the facts and interpret them carefully before planning a safety intervention.

3) Deliver quality recognition

I'm sure you've heard the expression that too much recognition can give a person a "big head." Well, guess what? A big head is good. The more recognition people receive, the better they feel about themselves. And the better people feel about themselves, the more they will actively care for the safety of others.

And remember, quality one-to-one recognition needs to be given privately, not publicly. Many people feel embarrassed when receiving special attention in a group context.

4) Take it all in

Reactions to recognition help determine future participation. Here are five guidelines for receiving recognition:

  • Avoid denials and disclaimers.
  • Actively listen with sincere appreciation.
  • Relive the recognition later.
  • Reward the recognition process.
  • Ask for recognition when it's deserved.


5) Celebrate success

Speaking of recognition, follow these guidelines for conducting quality safety celebrations:

  • Don't promote cheating by announcing an injury-reduction criterion needed for a celebration.
  • Focus on the journey - the processes that contributed to reaching the injury-reduction milestone.
  • Management should listen more than speak, and line workers should talk more about their participation than listen to managers' pleasure with the bottom line.
  • Relive the participation by discussing the activities that led to success.
  • Show how difficult it was to reach the milestone by pointing out hardships endured.
  • Use tangible rewards that support the memory of an occasion by displaying a relevant safety theme or slogan.


6) Punish as a last resort

Punishment is detrimental to long-term participation, and it can turn individuals and an entire work culture against those doing the punishing.

If you must send people home for punishment, let them have their pay and in return ask them to prepare a comprehensive plan for specific improvement, including ways to secure management and peer support. And after a supervisor approves an individual's plan for corrective action, both should offer mutual commitment and support by signing a written summary of the improvement plan.

7) Enhance "active caring"

Five factors influence people's willingness to help others: self-esteem ("I am valuable"), belonging ("I belong to a team"), self-efficacy ("I can do it"), personal control ("I am in control"), and optimism ("I expect the best").

Ask participants to specify recent situations and/or activities that decreased and increased these particular traits in them. Then brainstorm practical ways to cultivate these "person states" in the future.

8) Promote interdependence

When people understand interdependency, they realize their safety-related behaviors influence the safety of others. They participate in a safety process because they don't want anyone to get hurt, and they realize their good example contributes interdependently to the vision of an injury-free workplace.

9) Look beyond the numbers

Leaders certainly appreciate the need to hold people accountable with numbers, but they also understand you can't measure everything. They don't attempt to measure their success at increasing the actively caring "person states" I just mentioned. They do things on a regular basis to inspire these feeling states in others, but don't worry about measuring their direct impact.

10) Build and maintain momentum

Three factors - achievement of your participants, atmosphere of your culture, and attitude of your coaches and team leaders - influence momentum.

Achievement: You've got to keep score. You need a system to track small wins in safety that can build momentum:

  • Develop up-stream process measures such as number of audits completed or percentage of safe behaviors occurring.
  • Set process-oriented goals that are SMART - specific, motivational, achievable, relevant and trackable.
  • Discuss safety performance in terms of accomplishment - what people have done for safety, and what additional achievement potential is within their domain of control.
  • Recognize individuals appropriately for their accomplishments.
  • Celebrate group or team accomplishments on a regular basis.

Atmosphere: Before helping to launch a new safety-improvement process, my partners at Safety Performance Solutions insist everyone in the work culture learn the principles underlying the process. Everyone in the culture needs to learn the rationale behind the safety process - even those who will not be involved in actual implementation. This helps to provide the right kind of atmosphere or cultural context to support the process.

Attitude: Start with a clear statement of a vision and attainable goals. Then enthusiastically hold individuals and the team accountable for achieving these goals. Offer recognition when goals are reached.

A positive coach can even help members of a losing team feel better about themselves and give momentum a chance. The key is to find pockets of excellence to acknowledge, which builds self-confidence and self-efficacy. Then specific corrective feedback will be accepted as key to being more successful, and to building more momentum.

Next month I'll add seven more strategies to our list of 30 by considering theory and research from social psychology.

Note: More discussion of the strategies reviewed here can be found in Scott's new book, The Participation Factor, published by the American Society of Safety Engineers.

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