Peter Sandman On Safety (Part 2)

August 1, 2003
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    Dear Subscriber,

    PETER SANDMAN ON SAFETY

    In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we present part two in a three-part interview with Peter Sandman. The world-renown risk communication consultant describes risk communication as "embodying three key tasks - alerting people to big risks they mistakenly consider small; reassuring people about small risks they mistakenly consider big; and helping people bear big risks they rightly consider big."

    Visit his Web site (www.psandman.com) to access a library of his articles and handouts.

    We interviewed Peter Sandman at his home in Princeton, N.J., on a Friday morning in July. You might be familiar with his views on risk communication and outrage, less so with his thoughts on workplace safety. The first part of this interview focused on engaging management in conversations about safety. Part two focuses on engaging employees. Part three, next week, covers reputation management, employee outrage, and finding your niche as a safety and health professional.

    Mr. Sandman welcomes your comments regarding this interview. You can direct them to peter@psandman.com.

    EMPLOYEES' SENSE OF RISK

    Q) Let's talk about the other big challenge safety professionals have: Getting employees to follow safety precautions.

    (NOTE: You can download a PDF file containing 16 reasons why employees sometimes ignore safety procedures, developed by Peter Sandman, at http://www.psandman.com/handouts/sand5.pdf)

    You've said it helps if your safety innovations are invisible, because if you make people too comfortable in a safety sense, they may revert back to a higher level of risk-taking. So what about personal protective equipment, the gas masks, the gloves, helmets etc. - things that can't be invisible? Can they be counter-productive?

    A) The fundamental premise here is that everybody sort of has their own optimal level of risk. They don't want to fall below it, and they don't want to get above it. They want the level of risk they want.

    Two things make this all complicated. Different people have different optimal levels of risk, so in your workforce you have some people for whom the job feels too risky, and PPE brings it into their optimum range. And you have people for whom the job feels not risky enough, and PPE worsens the problem, and makes them act less safely.

    The one problem is you have different people. The other problem is people are not actually titrating their actual risk, they're titrating their apparent risk.

    Let me give you an example. I worked last month with a company whose employees are working with tanks of waste that occasionally off-gas ammonia and other gases. The employees are very anxious about the off-gassing. Some of it smells, and when they smell it they think it might be dangerous to them. A lot of them are asking for various kinds of personal protective equipment. They're asking for self-contained breathing apparatus and what not. And a lot of them are not asking for PPE. It's hot and it's outdoor work, and a lot of people don't want to have to wear that stuff.

    Now obviously if the risk is high, good policy and good regulation require you to require the employees to wear the equipment, whether they want to or not. But if the risk is low, then the question is: Should you forbid them to wear their equipment, or should you permit them to wear their equipment?

    If people are worried about the off-gassing, even if they have no reason to worry about the off-gassing - your data tell you the off-gassing is a trivial risk - if they want the PPE, give it to them! Let them wear it.

    Let it work out as it works out among the employees. If there are seven people in a work group and two of them are carrying around an extra 40 pounds of gear, and the other five aren't, the five who aren't are going to give them a hard time. They're going to tease them, saying, "You're not carrying your weight because you're carrying all this other weight."

    If they do need PPE, but they overestimate its value, the piece of personal protective equipment has two effects. It improves their safety by X amount, and improves their perceived safety by ten times X amount. You probably told them to wear it for the improvement in actual safety. But you should notice the improvement in perceived safety. If wearing the PPE takes them to the point where they are going to start violating safety rules, or not taking other precautions because they feel safer than they ought to feel, then you might want to either adjust the equipment or adjust the perceptions. You may want to teach them about how this equipment doesn't work, not just how it does work.

    The barrier is not that people are reluctant to learn this, it's usually that you're reluctant to say this.

    So back to your question. Give them the PPE. You know the PPE is only X valuable. They imagine it's ten times X valuable. You like that, because you think that will make them all the more likely to wear it, and that it will make them feel very safe. So you don't try to correct the misimpression because you imagine that it is working to your benefit. What you have to do is just remember that the optimum perceived risk is a range, it is possible to be below that range or above that range. And you've got to know where your employees are at before you can make the right adjustment.

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    INSTILLING MINDFULNESS

    Q) You've made the point that a lot of employees are afraid of their jobs. Excessively frightened so they don't work safe out of a self-deception. That is, they don't want to think about the consequences. How do you instill a sense of mindfulness if employees are excessively afraid?

    A) Ninety-five percent of the time people aren't thinking about safety because they aren't thinking about safety. It's kind of unmotivated inattention. They're daydreaming. You've just got to give them a system to remind them. Five percent of the time people aren't thinking about it because they can't bear to think about it.

    The example that I most often use is women with breast self-examinations. There are some women who just forget to do their breast self-examination, and they need to be reminded to do it. There are some who don't know how, and they need to be trained. There are some women who are insufficiently worried about breast cancer, and they need to be shook up.

    So those are three reasonable possibilities. She's apathetic - I've got to scare her. She forgot - I got to remind her. She doesn't know how - I've got to train her.

    But by far the largest number of women who don't do breast self-exams, I believe, already know about the problem. They already know how to do a breast self-exam, and they're certainly worried enough about cancer. They are so worried about breast cancer they don't dare do a breast self-exam because finding the lump would ruin their lives, and even looking for a lump ruins their day. So they don't do it.

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    FEAR VS. DENIAL

    Q) How do you get through that fear?

    A) If that's what's going on, it is not fear. Fear is when you know you're scared. This is denial. Denial looks like apathy and it is actually the opposite.

    Apathy is, I don't care because I think it's no big deal. Denial is, I won't let myself care because I think it's such a big deal I can't bear to think about it.

    The solution to denial is gentle reminders. You don't want to treat denial like apathy because it backfires. If people are in denial and you think they're apathetic, you try to shake them up. We do that in the workplace. We imagine the reason they are not taking the precaution is that they are not worried enough. So we make them watch terrifying movies about how you can lose your leg if you don't take this precaution, and that's exactly the right thing to do if they are actually apathetic.

    But if they're in denial, the movie is going to push them deeper into denial. So they need gentle reminders. They need legitimization of the fear. People go in denial in part because they think it's inappropriate to be afraid.

    If you suspect employees are under-reacting to a risk not because they don't care but because they are frightened, don't only give them ways to reduce their risk, give them choices among ways to reduce their risk so they get to pick. That gives them some control over their fear, and over their risk, and that reduces the denial. That makes it psychologically safer to take the precaution.

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    ATTACKING APATHY

    Q) What if the problem is apathy? What's the strategy for breaking through apathy about taking safety precautions?

    A) The purest case of apathy is, "I'm just not scared. It won't happen to me."

    I think the thing to do with this kind of apathy is to take it literally. One thing you can say is, "Even if you think it won't happen, things will happen to you because you don't take the precaution seriously, things that have to do with fines and punishment."

    There is another thing you can say. Frankly, sometimes safety rules are stupid. When a safety rule is stupid, but you have to do it because otherwise you're in trouble with the regulator, the right thing to say to employees is, "Look, I don't think this is a serious risk either. But they passed a regulation, and let me tell you about the risk that is serious. If we get caught ignoring this regulation we're going to be in deep trouble. If you're the one who gets us into deep trouble, you're going to be in deep trouble. Do I think the regulation is important? No. Do I think it's important to obey the regulation? Yes. For these extrinsic reasons."

    When you say a stupid rule isn't stupid, you don't persuade anybody. You haven't given them a good reason for obeying the stupid rule. You also undermine your credibility about the rules that aren't stupid. Your defense of the stupid rule is identical with your defense of the important rule, and that's unwise.

    Here's another way to approach apathy. Take people seriously when they say this won't affect me. Ask them what they mean. "Do you mean that you think nobody is really at risk? Do you mean, well yes, this might affect other people, but there are reasons why you in particular are invulnerable?"

    That one's pretty common. It's pretty common for people to think, "Jack may get hurt and Susan may get hurt but I won't get hurt." If that's what they think, it's very, very useful to get that on the table, because it usually doesn't hold water as a conscious belief. It only holds water as an unconscious belief. So make it conscious.

    Say to employees, "OK, so this won't happen to you? Who might it happen to? Oh, it might happen to her? Well all right, how is she different from you exactly?"

    You begin to get to either an irrational prejudice which diminishes or disappears when it's exposed, or a rational difference. She's vulnerable because of X and Y, and I'm not vulnerable because of A and B and C, and in this case the employee's right.

    There is one more thing I need to say. The most straightforward, the most obvious way of dealing with people who are apathetic about a risk is to scare them. Scaring people has had a bad press. There is a myth among safety people that fear doesn't work. And it's not true. Fear works fine. Excessive fear is another thing.

    Fear is a "U" curve. In general, if I'm insufficiently afraid I won't take precautions, and if I'm excessively afraid I also won't take precautions. So you just don't want to use fear appeals across the board. Fear appeals will worsen denial. But for people who are genuinely apathetic, fear appeals are terrific.

    There were some early studies on fear appeals that showed that they didn't work. And the reason that they didn't work was because they were in venues where denial was a real piece of the problem. You had the classic study in the 1950s with trying to persuade kids to brush their teeth by showing them a movie with the whine of the dentist drill and the close ups of the rotting teeth and all that. The movie backfired because the kids went into denial. They didn't brush their teeth in order not to think about that horrible movie. That was a case where fear appeals were so powerful that denial kept them from working.

    But going from low fear to moderate fear is a wonderful aid to get people taking precautions. Safety people who are afraid to scare their employees are making a big mistake. Scared is good. It's not the only way to do it, but it's a very good way to do it.

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    MAKING EMPLOYEES ACCOUNTABLE

    Q) How do we get employees to feel okay about being accountable for their own safety? All orders diminish the person who is getting ordered around. How can we break through the unattractiveness of being ordered to work safe?

    A) That's interesting, I'm not sure I know the answer. But two things come to mind. One possibility is to make employees accountable for each other rather than for themselves. This is a much easier sort of order to take. If you say to a supervisor, you're accountable for the safety of your people, that's saying, "Be a good boss," which is not diminishing him in the same way.

    If you say to employees you're accountable for your teammates, you are jointly accountable, it seems to me you bring esprit de corps and morale issues to bear on the side of safety. If you have groups that work closely together and are fond of each other, if you have them be accountable to each other and have them work to accumulate a group safety record, then I think the stature issues are much easier to cope with. You're harnessing morale on your side. You're harnessing altruism on your side. You're harnessing even horseplay and teasing and peer pressure to be on your side. So I think there's a lot to be said for making safety not an individual responsibility, but rather a group responsibility.

    The other thing that comes to mind is, if people have decisions to make, then their stature is enhanced. Part of the problem with safety is we tend to have very rigid safety rules, so our specs for safety performance are tech specs {technical specifications} rather than performance specs.

    People are always much happier implementing performance specs than tech specs because they are then making decisions about how to achieve the performance goal. Whether it's on the individual level or the group level, rather than saying, "Here are the 15 things you must do, you're accountable for doing them," you're much better off saying, "Here are outcomes that need to be achieved. Here are some ways of achieving them. You're accountable for figuring out which ways you can use, and for making sure that you use them."

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    PARENTING PROBLEMS

    Q) So much of safety can have to do with controls. Rules, discipline policies, observations in a behavioral safety program. It seems this is one reason why employees resist safety, because of this sense of being controlled, and who likes to be controlled? How does the safety person negotiate the fine line between the need for some control, without being overbearing and pushing the employee away?

    A) We tend to imagine people's response to safety is mostly a response to the risk. Sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it is mostly a response to the precaution.

    Look at our history. We start out as children, much more outraged at precautions than we are at risks. When we're two, our parents are saying don't play with our feces. When we're five, they're saying don't ride your trike in the street. When we're 12, they're saying, don't go out until you've finished your homework. When we're 18, they're saying don't drive at night. When we're 22, they're saying don't marry that jerk.

    So we go through several decades of what feels to us like overprotective parenting. And then we get to the job, we're adults now, and the safety person is very likely to come on to us in a way that makes us think, "Sun of a gun, it's mommy all over again." And what happens is literally a regression. In the face of the safety person's parental reaction to us, we get a childish reaction to the safety person. We wind up saying, "Get off my back. Leave me alone." These are things we said to our parents. (Mr. Sandman laughs.) And we're saying them to the safety person because the safety person is making us feel like a kid again.

    The safety person needs to understand that kind of employee resistance.

    Q) Well, what do you do instead of coming on like a parent?

    A) You come on like a better parent. You give control wherever you can, using group norms rather than individual norms. Give choices among ways of meeting the performance spec rather than the tech spec. These are ways of sharing control.

    Try to make the precautions less onerous. Also, acknowledge the ways in which the precautions are onerous. One of the worst things parents do is say, "The medicine doesn't taste bad", when the medicine does taste bad.

    You ought not to say the respirator doesn't itch when the respirator does itch. Get on the other side of that seesaw and say, "This respirator really itches, I wish I didn't have to make you wear it. You'd think if they can send a man to the moon they'd make PPE that doesn't itch." Then the employee sort of rolls his eyes and says, "No big deal." Acknowledge the discomfort, acknowledge the ways in which the precautions are a pain.

    You may even acknowledge the ways you're recapitulating parent-child interactions. It's sometimes possible to say, "You know, I know this must sound just like your mother, I wish I didn't have to sound just like your mother."

    There are a variety of ways of doing it. I don't think the main problem is how to be less oppressive about safety. I think the main problem is our lack of analysis. It doesn't occur to us that the problem isn't that the employee is insufficiently worried about the risk. The problem is the employee is rebelling against the safety person's parenting.

    Once you make that analysis, well, you raised teenagers successfully, you have some experience with how you get through that. What are some good ways of dealing with it? We use our parenting skills to be more gentle and more understanding and more compassionate and more gracious about safety - once we realize outrage about the precaution is very common and very real.

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    Next week: Peter Sandman on finding your niche as a safety and health professional, reputation management, and employee outrage.

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    Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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