Imagine you’re watching the following story unfold. After you hear what happened, I’d like you to consider what you would have done (if anything) had you been there.

You’re at one of those restaurants known for heckling diners, supposedly all in good fun. At a table nearby sit a mom, dad, their two children — ages five and seven — and their 17-year-old niece. From the start, Anna, the 17-year-old, is targeted for ridicule. Her waiter, nicknamed Buttercup, first teases her about the small “star” tattoo on her shoulder. Then he brings out a paper hat with the label “Puberty Sucks” and puts it on her head.

When Anna ignores this badgering, Buttercup gets more aggressive. He takes out a black magic marker and writes “SLUT” across Anna’s bare back. Onlookers laugh aloud, but Anna looks quite embarrassed. She doesn’t say a word, though, and continues to eat her meal. The waiter still wants to get a rise from Anna. He returns from the kitchen with a meringue pie, and you guessed it, pushes it directly into Anna’s face.

Buttercup finally gets the rise he wanted — literally. The 110-pound teenager springs from her chair and tackles the six-foot, 200-pound waiter. After a brief scuffle, Buttercup holds Anna upside down by her ankles and proceeds to carry her outside and drop her safely in a dumpster.

Anna returns to her table in tears; she’s immediately consoled by her aunt, who accompanies her to the restroom. When the waiter delivers the check, Anna’s uncle pays it — and adds a ten percent gratuity.

Normal reactions?

This story is absolutely true; it happened this past summer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. When I heard it, I was initially stunned by the lack of intervention. I imagined myself standing on a chair after the waiter took a magic marker to Anna’s back — that’s when he crossed the line, right? — and telling the crowd: “Management will gladly cover everyone’s food and drink to avoid the million-dollar lawsuit.”

How could anyone allow this incident to escalate to its outlandish outcome without intervening? I was astounded to learn that Anna’s uncle not only paid the check, but also added on a significant tip. When later challenged by Anna’s parents, the defense was, “Everything happened so fast.”

I bet your reaction is similar to mine. You can visualize yourself helping Anna. At the very least, you would not have given the waiter a financial reward.

Don’t be so sure.

Several factors inhibited intervention in Anna’s case. Similar factors also hinder workplace involvement for safety and health. Situations occur every day at work where we could say or do something about undesirable or risky behaviors.

After a person gets hurt, our hindsight kicks in. “Why didn’t someone warn her?” I’m sure you can recall instances where an injury would have been avoided if someone had stepped in or spoken up. So why don’t we get involved? Let’s consider four barriers that impeded intervention in the restaurant, and see whether they are relevant to industrial settings.

1. "That's the way it is"

The restaurant is known for hassling its customers. The climate invites confrontation. Obviously, we’re talking about culture — a critical determinant of behavior.

I’ve visited many plants where the behavior of people in leadership positions is not consistent with safety rules and regulations. This sets the stage for compromising safety in the name of efficiency or productivity. In such a work culture, you can expect many opportunities for safety intervention to be overlooked.

2. “Someone else will help.”

Social psychologists have found that the more people witnessing an event calling for intervention, the lower the probability any one person will help. A popular explanation for this “bystander apathy effect” is diffusion of responsibility — people assume another onlooker will help.

It’s logical to assume that the most appropriate people to intervene on Anna’s behalf were those at her table. Perhaps onlookers thought that Buttercup had a special relationship with Anna or her family, and this explained the outrageous behavior.

Have you ever held back from actively caring for safety because you figured someone else would or should help? Maybe you thought you’d be meddling in someone else’s business. In many work cultures it’s natural for individuals to feel this reluctance. Not only might you be intruding, but it’s reasonable to think that someone else — a team member or a friend — might be in a better position to help.

3. “What should I do?”

What should have been said to Buttercup when he wrote “SLUT” on Anna’s back? What feedback should Anna’s uncle have given to Buttercup and his manager, perhaps after refusing to pay the check? What should Anna have said to stifle the belittling?

Researchers have shown that individuals are more likely to help others in emergency situations when they know what to do. Observers without relevant training are quick to defer the responsibility to someone else.

Assertiveness training, for example, helps people stand up for their rights and come to the realization their feelings and opinions matter and should be expressed. Such training involves direct instruction and role-playing of specific verbal expressions to regain control in certain situations. Practicing what to say to resolve or alleviate a conflict beforehand enables people to intervene effectively in the “heat” of the moment. Likewise, practicing what to say before asking a peer to work safely will increase the likelihood you’ll actually intervene and be effective. Instead of saying, “Why don’t you follow the safe operating procedure?” ask, “What barriers are holding you back from doing the job safely?”

4. “She asked for it.”

Did it ever cross your mind that Anna’s reactions, or lack of actions, influenced the series of unpleasant exchanges? In the same vein, have you ever thought the victim of an unpleasant workplace conflict or an injury did something to deserve it? It’s common for people to view victims as causing their own fate. Social psychologists call this phenomena the “just world hypothesis” — people assume that we get what we deserve and deserve what we get.

I’ll discuss this belief in a just world and its ramifications for industrial safety in my ISHN article next month. For now, consider how this belief can be a barrier to helping others. Most observers of the confrontation between Buttercup and Anna derived their own explanations for the incident, and given the just world bias, many probably blamed Anna for her misfortune.

Here’s hoping the next time you see someone taking a risk at work you’ll overcome these four obstacles and step in for safety’s sake.

Sidebar: Ask yourself…

  • Have you observed at-risk behavior and said to yourself, “What a dumb thing to do; if he gets hurt he deserves it”?

  • Have you avoided getting involved in a situation because you felt untrained or ill-equipped to deal with it?

  • Have you ever held back from actively caring for safety because you figured someone else would or should help?

  • Have you held back because you felt your work environment condoned unsafe behavior?