PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Safety and sustainability

January 11, 2009
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The term “sustainability” does not appear in my American Heritage Dictionary (1991). The verb “sustain” is defined as “to keep in existence; maintain; to support. Provide for (as in) nourishment.” Isn’t this a primary purpose of safety and health programs? We’ve all heard someone say, “Safety is all about assuring people leave work in the same physical condition they had upon arrival.”

Wikipedia (retrieved 8/9/2008) claims sustainability means more than environmental protection, and “is a positive concept that has as much to do with achieving well-being for people and ecosystems as it has to do with reducing ecological stress or environmental impacts.”

Can Mother Earth be sustained?

Our life-support system we call “Mother Earth” is in serious jeopardy. In 1993, the 1,600 members of the Union of Concerned Scientists proclaimed, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”


The current world population of more than six billion will double in about 47 years. At this rate, it’s estimated our planet must provide food for 180 new mouths every minute. This is mindboggling when considering that over one billion earth inhabitants live in extreme poverty, at-risk for serious health problems due to malnutrition.

Depletion of resources

Resources essential to human life, including uncontaminated water, air, and topsoil suitable for farming, are continually depleted. It’s noteworthy U.S. residents consume 25 percent of our earth’s resources, yet make up approximately five percent of the world’s population.

Climate change and pollution

Toxic waste, smog, acid rain, and polluted lakes, rivers, and saltwater bays are serious threats to the sustainability of human life. Even more serious, however, is the global warming caused by the “greenhouse effect” which is attributed primarily to pollution from the carbon dioxide and methane released by the burning of coal and oil.

Recycling is just one example of a sustainability-related behavior.

Can we make a difference?

There are a number of simple things we can do to conserve our resources and reduce environmental pollution. For example, we could a) drive at or below speed limits, b) insulate our homes and our water heaters, c) recycle aluminum, glass, plastic, and paper, d) carpool and increase use of public transportation, e) substitute fans for air conditioning, f) take shorter showers, and g) bring reusable bags to businesses (especially grocery stores) for transporting merchandise. Of course, we should also purchase energy-efficient vehicles and appliances. Indeed, it’s disheartening fuel-wasting vehicles exemplified by the GM Hummer were ever built and marketed, but even more discouraging so many people purchased them.

Books and websites offer many additional strategies people can use to protect and sustain Mother Earth. One of my first books, Preserving the Environment: New Strategies for Behavior Change (coauthored by Drs. Dick Winett and Peter Everett and published by Pergamon Press) not only depicted the variety of simple things people could do for environmental protection, but also described evidence-based interventions for large-scale promotion of sustainability efforts.

Judging by sales reports, our 1982 book had minimal behavioral impact. Was our research and scholarship ahead of its time? No, we had been inspired in 1970 by the first national Earth Day. Today, with increased media and political attention to the limited oil resources and global warming, “green” is in. But people are not doing nearly as much as they could to actively care for our planet.

Why don’t more do more?

Environmental and conservation psychologists have defined specific barriers holding people back from participating in sustainability efforts. These same barriers hold back many safety programs from progressing, too.

We’re in denial: Many people deny the environmental sustainability issues reviewed above. We snatch up information that supports our current at-risk or environmentally-destructive routines; and since most threats to our environment and our safety are out of sight and out of mind, it’s easy to deny their existence.

We’ve got bad habits: Many of our daily routines include environmentally-wasteful or destructive behaviors. Likewise, many of our at-risk behaviors are performed automatically or mindlessly. Behavior change for sustainability and safety requires more than the learning of new behaviors. Often, long-standing and comfortable bad habits must be broken first.

We divert responsibility: Social psychologists have shown that the probability of someone helping another person in an emergency decreases as the number of people observing the crisis increases. Psychologists attribute this to “diffusion of responsibility.” We conveniently pass the buck to others, assuming technology and others will provide solutions. Similarly, many employees believe safety is the responsibility of the company safety department.

However, every reader knows the likelihood of saving Mother Earth and achieving an injury-free workplace increases as a function of the number of people contributing consistently and interdependently. We don’t believe: Many believe the problem of sustainability cannot be solved by their individual efforts.

Correspondingly, many workers believe “accidents are bound to happen,” regardless of their participation in ongoing safety programs. In other words, the complex and multifaceted issues of environmental sustainability and occupational safety can seem overwhelming and hopeless.

We’re motivated by soon and certain consequences: Behavior is motivated by consequences, and the most influential consequences are soon and certain. It’s difficult to see immediate benefits for the things we do for environmental sustainability and injury prevention. Because the intrinsic consequences for sustainability and safety-related behaviors are delayed and uncertain, extrinsic accountability or social support systems are usually necessary for broad participation in programs to protect our planet and prevent workplace injuries.

To conclude

This article discussed parallel challenges of environmental sustainability and occupational safety. Both of these domains require large-scale behavior change, and for each, five barriers need to be overcome in order to obtain comprehensive participation. All of this can seem overwhelming.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How about defining a few specific behaviors you can perform regularly for sustainability and for safety. Write these down as a personal commitment — your New Year’s Resolutions.

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