Do you follow the Golden Rule?

Do you “treat others as you want to be treated”? If so, that’s good but not great. People-Based Safety (PBS) teaches the Platinum Rule — “Treat others as they want to be treated.” We need to understand the perceptions of others before making interventions that impact their lives.

To illustrate this principle, I tell audiences of a memorable experience I had in third grade. My teacher called me to the front of the class to recognize me for the superb job I did on my homework assignment. Later, several classmates beat me up in the playground. I didn’t want public recognition in the classroom. But my teacher didn’t see the classroom situation as I did.

Understanding workers’ perceptions is a critical challenge of PBS, both when developing and delivering a process to support safe behavior and/or to correct at-risk behavior.

Surveying perceptions

Perception surveys are a useful way to do this. Pre-intervention surveys inform the design of intervention strategies, and comparisons of pre- and post-intervention surveys estimate the diverse impact of an intervention on people’s perceptions, attitudes, and values.

My SPS partners have been applying the same comprehensive perception survey for more than a decade, and thus have a database of more than 8.5 million safety-related perceptions across a broad range of industries worldwide. These culture surveys are invaluable for benchmarking, and for customizing intervention strategies for various types of operations.

Bottom line: People’s views of safety-related issues vary widely and should be considered when you design and evaluate procedures for improving safety performance. Here are six powerful perceptions that influence safety-related behavior.

1) Familiarity breeds contempt (for risks)

High on the list of psychological factors influencing an individual’s perception of risk and safety-related behavior is the role of familiarity. The more experience we have regarding a potential risk, the less risk we perceive.

You can appreciate this principle by recalling your safety-related behaviors when you first started to drive and comparing them with your current driving. As experience bolsters our perception of control, it also increases the possibility of risk-taking.

2) Choice matters

In myISHNarticle last month (September 2005), I discussed the importance of perceived choice when transitioning from other-directed accountability to self-directed responsibility. Here, consider how much less risky those hazards we choose to experience seem (on the road, in the workplace, and during recreation) compared to those hazards we feel compelled to endure (like food preservatives, environmental pollution, and earthquakes).

3) “Safety” in numbers

Perceptions of risk are increased more easily through the use of individual case examples than group statistics. Safety meetings and interventions should focus on individual experiences rather than cold, hard numbers. After all, we can “hide” behind numbers. When people hear personal perceptions and regrets of coworkers injured on the job, they imagine themselves in a similar unfortunate circumstance. Their perception of risk is enhanced, and safe behavior increases.

4) Just desserts

The perception that “people get what they deserve” has intriguing implications for workplace safety. I believe this view contributes to the common perspective, “it won’t happen to me.” Since most believe they are essentially good and therefore undeserving of a bad-luck injury, they expect the “other guy” to get hurt on the job — not them. Everyday experiences usually support this perception. Injuries do happen, but not to most individuals, even when they take risks.

5) Superman complex

When you perceive you are well-protected, do you take more risks? Many people do. The implication of this phenomenon is that making a job safer with machine guards or PPE lowers people’s risk perception — and increases at-risk behavior. When safety guards or PPE are added to a work task, behavioral observers should be alert to the possibility of extra risk-taking related to the behaviors protected by the new safety equipment.

But the increase in risk-taking and injuries does not negate the benefits of the protection. Although football players increase at-risk behaviors when suited up with helmets and pads, they sustain far fewer injuries than they would without the PPE.

6) Driven to distraction

I’d like to review one more safety-related perception; one that contributes to many injuries. Specifically, my Type-A personality and need-to-achieve attitude facilitate a future-oriented mindset that gives too much attention to the future and too little on the present. I can still hear my mother admonishing me to “stop and smell the roses.”

Perceiving and seizing the moment means being mindful and attentive to our ongoing behavior. We use all relevant senses to recognize what we are doing and where we are doing it. Our antennae are fully extended, enabling us to fully encounter the present. Procedures and tools of PBS help to initiate and support present-focused perceptions and mindfulness.

SIDEBAR: Assessment tools

We cannot assume other people see what we see, and interpret risks and risk-taking as we do. PBS teaches empathy — the need to assess the perceptions of a work group or culture targeted for an injury-prevention intervention. These perceptions are carefully considered when customizing an intervention process.

PBS also teaches techniques for hazard recognition and risk assessment. These include: a) appropriate alternating between focusing and scanning (as covered in my December 2003 ISHN column), b) the Exposure-Severity-Probability (ESP) approach to risk assessment (as detailed in my April 2003 ISHN column), and c) the development and application of a Critical Behavior Checklist (as explained in my May 2003 ISHN column). These articles are readily available on the SPS and ISHN web sites. They are also explained in my recent book, “People-Based Safety: The Source.”