Safety Culture / Psychology

Fear Sells - But What's The Cost?

February 14, 2011
KEYWORDS culture / management
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If you’re like many safety and health pros, you probably deal with a lot of fear and anger on the job.

Any number of employers fear and/or detest OSHA, it inspectors, fines, and standards. They fear the bad press, lawsuits, workers’ comp costs and other black eyes that come from “careless employees” and “uncontrollable events”.

Employees fear toxic exposures they cannot see and chemicals they cannot pronounce (compounded by MSDSs they cannot decipher). They’re afraid of looking silly in PPE. In some workplaces there are reprisals for reporting injuries.

Supervisors, meanwhile, worry that taking time out for safety training and other precautions will interfere with making production quotas. They can get angry over safety “interventions”.

Bitter medicine No wonder safety suffers from an image problem in many workplaces. It’s like listening to negative campaign ads. Who wants to contribute to a cause based on worst-case scenarios, penalties, finger-pointing, and long explanations about what can go wrong?

I know if I’m forced to take that kind of medicine, I’ll act like a kid, make faces and fuss, and swallow absolutely no more than I have to. We call that safety compliance. But fear works, or else we wouldn’t see so many politicians “go negative.” Just look at the scare tactics used by labor and industry groups in their battle over the ergonomics standard. No rule means an epidemic of crippling injuries will continue to maim workers. Having a rule will bankrupt small businesses and throw honest-working folk out of jobs.

The New York Times Magazine this past summer (2001) gave us another lesson in how safety and health issues can be manipulated for an emotional response. There, on the glossy cover, stood a woman in a baggy, white “moon suit”, peering out from behind a black respirator mask. Behind her was a sweeping antebellum staircase right out of “Gone With The Wind.” Cover lines identified her problem: “Lurking, Choking Toxic Mold.”

A mold invasion turned this woman’s dream house from “modern-day Tara to biohazard,” explained the cover caption. A quote at the top of the contents page, printed in red, warned how mold can secrete toxins that might lodge “in your digestive tract, your lungs or your brain”. “Haunted by Mold”, the article’s title, was followed by a description of how toxic mold “chokes your child and renders your husband senseless. It’s your - and your insurers’ - worst nightmare.”

Hitting home Here we go again. On the heels of asbestos, alare, radon, lead-based paint, latex allergies and carbon monoxide poisoning we have another public health scare, complete with choking children, senseless husbands, and haunted houses. No wonder people are fleeing their homes or burning them to the ground - even calling safety magazines for help. We got a phone call here from a nervous local homeowner who had just been informed by a house inspector that his place had mold. Could we come out and take care of it?

Lost in all of this is a sense of balance. Experts agree that some people with acute sensitivities are at high risk from certain molds. But they also point out that we’ve lived with mold since the Stone Age and actual cases of related health problems are unique or rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fear sells. Avoiding “your worst nightmare” has sold plenty of OSHA compliance products. Greed sells too, but it’s always been hard to prove how safety makes a business more profitable. So the path of least resistance is to sell safety on the negatives. It works to a point: you might get compliance. But you’ll also get resentment. And you won’t get respect.

Bang the drum I admire people like Dr. Rick Fulwiler, the former Procter & Gamble safety and health director, who has preached for years about safety’s competitive advantages. Or Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who considers protecting people a matter of respect, a shared value that can bind an organization.

Or ISHN’s columnist, Dr. Scott Geller, who bangs the drum for how caring for others builds self-esteem and a feeling of belonging.

Or ORC Worldwide, trying to define and promote positive business metrics associated with safety and health investments.

Or the safety and health pros who got into this business to help people out (it wasn’t greed, that’s for sure.) They’re all swimming against the tide, so to speak, that resentment toward safety fostered by a history of fear-mongering.

I hope they continue to make headway, because fear tactics are showing their age. Fewer and fewer employers worry about OSHA. Inspections are rare, new standards even rarer. But safety’s challenges never go away. Training time continues to get squeezed. So do budgets and staff. The workforce is aging and morale is sagging. Fear is not the answer.

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