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    Dear Subscriber,


    Did you catch the three-part series of front-page articles in the New York Times before the holidays investigating what reporter David Barstow called OSHA's "culture of reluctance"? From 1982 to 2002, the agency handled 1,242 cases where workers died because of their employer's willful safety violations, yet in 93 percent of those cases, OSHA declined to seek prosecution, according to the Times' research.

    In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we go beyond OSHA to examine how workplaces are often afflicted by a "culture of reluctance" when it comes to safety and health — and we offer suggestions for what you can do about it.

    Avoiding Confusion

    First, let's clear something up. Reluctance is different than resistance, and far more attention has been paid to outright resistance to safety.

    Reluctance is a feeling. Resistance is an act. When you are reluctant, you hem and haw, waver, hesitate. When you resist, you've already made up your mind.

    Reluctance is not apathy or denial, either — two other related safety subjects. Apathy is a lazy lack of interest. Denial is stronger, a firm refusal to act. When you're reluctant, you don't know whether to be interested or not, whether to refuse or not. You're on the fence.

    Think of how reluctance rears its head in so many areas of safety and health work. You usually don't have to go far to find a reluctance to report incidences, to record them, to make safety suggestions, to fund safety initiatives, to participate in investigations, to wear PPE, to let OSHA in the door, to discipline violators, to celebrate successes, to listen, to give feedback. You'll find many more instances of reluctance than willful resistance, apathy or denial.

    John Wayne's Legacy

    Why the hesitation when it comes to safety?

    Blame it on heroes like John Wayne or outlaws like Willie Nelson, on "don't fence me in" and "do your own thing." On good old U.S. culture and values.

    "We've been raised to be individuals," says psychology professor and consultant Dr. E. Scott Geller. "Interdependence, getting involved to help others, which is implied in safety programs, is not the goal. When someone gets hurt, we think they screwed up. We say, 'I'll take care of myself, you take care of yourself'."

    Dr. Geller offers some other reasons:

    • "Safety is all about negative reinforcement. Catch people when they screw up. Enforce rules and regulations. So we do safety to avoid failure, whereas many other things in life we do for success. It's far more pleasant to go after success."

  • "We assert our individual freedom, our independence, in reaction to this enforcement and control. We say, 'nice guys finish last' and 'you've got to blow your own horn.' We want to assert ourselves."

    Aside from culture and values, human nature comes into play. Reluctance is emotional interference delaying so many decisions — getting a physical, accepting computers, making sales calls, telling the boss she's wrong, or committing to safety work. Look at some reasons why many people are reluctant to go to the hospital when experiencing chest pain, according to medical sources:

  • There is a strong tendency to want to go about business as usual.

  • The victim feels indestructible. "It won't happen to me."

  • The victim needs to feel always in control; he or she doesn't want to cede control to others, in this case doctors and nurses.

  • The victim is worried about what others will think.

    It won't happen to me. What will others think? Leave me alone. All typical reactions to safety efforts.

    Accentuate the Positive

    OK, so what do you do to overcome reluctance? Here are 15 suggestions:

    1 — PUT A POSITIVE SPIN ON SAFETY, says Dr. Geller. He admits it's easier said than done. After all, typical safety evaluations and scoring focus on failures. And what does management usually emphasize when it turns attention to safety? Get those numbers down, avoid failure. And when failures happen — it's time to investigate.

    Define positive, proactive steps that employees can take to prevent injuries, and then hold them accountable for achievement, says Dr. Geller. Measure safety in terms of hazards identified and removed, near-miss incidents reported and reviewed, audits completed, the percentage of safe behaviors observed per work team, safety suggestions received and implemented.

    And be sure to recognize positive accomplishments. Celebrate. Make sure employees receive positive consequences.

    2 — GIVE EMPLOYEES A COMPELLING REASON to want to work safely. Create a desire for achievement that will override any reservations. This is key when working with salespeople, for instance. With safety, you need to clearly, concisely and confidently articulate the value of working safely to your audience.

    Take an inventory of all that safety has to offer in the way of benefits. Once your employees are convinced of safety's value, and their own necessary role in bringing those benefits to life, getting involvement will be easier. Your employees will be sold on themselves.

    No Fear

    3 — BE UP-FRONT with the concerns employees have that hold them back. Almost everything about reluctance can be traced to fear. Fear of criticism. Scrutiny. Discipline. Attention. Responsibility. Pressure. Inconvenience. As quality guru W. Edwards Deming said, you must drive out fear. The first step is 'fessing up to the fact that the fear is real. Conducting a confidential perception survey is one way to learn the barriers that lead to reluctance.

    4 — GET IT OUT ON THE TABLE. Reluctance is an issue that must be dealt with. Many people are embarrassed by their own reluctance. Who wants to be known as a half-hearted, vacillating procrastinator? In a safety meeting, team meeting, or one-on-one conversation, stick to facts that point to reluctance — sagging attendance, lack of volunteers, etc. — and stay away from subjective judgments that can come across as personal attacks.

    5 — ASK EMPLOYEES TO OBSERVE their own behavior while they work for signs of reluctance. When and where do they shy away from safety? From wearing PPE. From following lockout or confined space entry procedures?

    6 — PUT IT IN WRITING. Get at that inner Doubting Thomas causing employees to wonder whether safety matters. Have your attendees at a safety meeting write down on paper the things coming from that diffident little voice within. Things like, "I don't want to bother." "I don't have the time." "Safety is for wimps."

    Collect the papers and without naming names, write the sayings on a display board for all to see. Then go through each one, writing down realistic responses on the board.

    7 — BUILD CONFIDENCE. One typical doubt that leads to safety reluctance is the fear that "I don't have the skills, the knowledge" to make a difference. How can I solve problems, correct co-workers, conduct investigations or audits or training?"

    To build confidence, ask employees how they want to be schooled in safety. Do some market research. What do your "safety buyers" want? What kind of learning turns them on — expert lectures, coaching from coworkers, mentoring, hands-on demos?

    Lessons From Technology

    8 — EVALUATE YOUR WORKFORCE. Who are your safety enthusiasts, your pioneers? And who are your "late adopters"? It's a term originally used to describe a category of technology buyer.

    What works for pioneers will not turn on your late adopters. Don't expect skeptics to follow the leaders. Late adopters, according to technology market research, are pragmatists. They are conservative and distrustful of change for change sake. Their eyes are on the bottom line. And they have no patience for canned presentations, gimmicks, and flavor of the month programs.

    Pioneers rarely sympathize with reluctants, according to research. They don't understand their issues. Pioneers are far more tolerant of frustration, more interested in being out front, on the cutting edge.

    9 — DON'T ASSUME. Don't let your safety program go the way of failed tech companies that were blind to the differences between these two groups. Many tech companies assumed technology acceptance and sales would be a smooth growth curve from early enthusiasts to broad-based support.

    That proved to be a ruinous assumption, and it is directly applicable to safety programs. To bridge the gap, tech companies learned it takes a concerted, long-term marketing campaign that pays attention to the vastly different needs, perspectives and demands of late adopters. The same goes for your safety program.

    10 — SHOW RESULTS. Research shows late adopters want proof of results before they "buy." You can't simply promise safety's benefits. Show what safety has achieved in other workplaces. Show measurable results. Use case studies. Good sources are Balrige award winners, OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program, Fortune magazine's annual "100 Best Companies to Work For." Conduct an Internet search using the key words "socially responsible companies."

    11 — STRUCTURE MATTERS. Late adopters want structure. Cautious and conservative, they won't jump into safety programs that are untested, unrefined and incomplete. They don't have time to mess around. They're looking for a stable platform.

    12 — BE CAREFUL HOW YOU TALK to late adopters. According to technology marketplace research, they are turned off by the gung-ho, giddy language of enthusiasts. Think of the last time you listened to a Mac diehard. Or someone who just bought an iPOD. Forget the rah-rah rhetoric. Junk the jargon. Late adapters view all this with suspicion.

    13 — DON'T STOP WITH TRAINING. To continue the technology analogy, late adopters need ongoing support beyond the classroom and training. You can't stop there. You need to be on-call when procedures don't make sense, when PPE doesn't fit, when production pressures mount.

    14 — TRY TEAMS. Work your safety reluctants into teams peppered with co-workers more comfortable with safety goals and methods. Teams offer support, and the chance to discover safety's benefits when working with a group that shares problems and solutions.

    15 — FACE IT. Face up to the "What's in it for me?" issue. We're living in the U.S.A, after all. Employees who are expected to take time out for safety training, audits, brainstorming, housekeeping, and are expected to take on the inconveniences that can come with following procedures and policies need to know that safety is a serious value of the workplace, emphasized by leadership and worthy of ongoing recognition.

    Last Words

    "Ah, when to the heart of man

    Was it ever less than treason

    To go with the drift of things…"

    From Robert Frost's poem, Reluctance

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


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    You can order these titles and more from the American Society of Safety Engineers Bookstore on ISHN’s Web site. Visit —

    Among the books you'll find:

  • "Refresher Guide for the Safety Fundamentals Exam"

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  • "Safety Training That Delivers"

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    Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?

    Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.

    Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.

    If any of these topics interest you — or if you have other ideas — e-mail editor Dave Johnson at

    We will also consider articles you’ve already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.