In the U.S., many of the most obvious workplace threats have been reduced or eliminated, making American workers far safer. Time lost due to workplace injuries dropped a whopping 54.9 percent between 1991 and 2008. These improvements were seen across all industries, geographic regions and companies of various sizes.1

Still, despite this positive trend, there is evidence these improvements are beginning to stall.2 In 2007, more than 5,600 people were killed on the job and more than four million were injured.3 What’s more, these injuries cost firms more than $48.6 billion.4

The vast majority of the gains in workplace safety can be attributed to improvements in equipment, policies, systems and training.5 But these formal tools often fail to address informal, cultural challenges. We have conducted interviews and surveys among more than 1,500 employees from 20 firms, and our research reveals that the ugly secret behind most workplace injuries is that someone is aware of a threat well in advance, but is either unwilling or unable to speak up.

"Don't go there" conversations

Specifically, we uncovered five crucial conversations that exist in most organizations that are politically incorrect or uncomfortable to surface. Ninety-three percent of employees say their workgroup is currently at risk from one or more of these five “accidents waiting to happen.”

The five conversations that undermine workplace safety are:

“Get It Done.” Unsafe practices that are justified by tight timelines. According to the study, 78 percent of respondents see their coworkers take unsafe shortcuts.

“Unapproachable Incompetence.” Unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that can’t be discussed. Sixty five percent of respondents see their coworkers create unsafe conditions due to incompetence.

“Just this Once.” Unsafe practices that are justified as exceptions to the rule. Fifty-five percent of our survey respondents see their coworkers make unsafe exceptions in an attempt to correct mistakes or salvage opportunities.

“This Is Overboard.” Unsafe practices that bypass precautions considered excessive. According to the study, 66 percent of respondents see their coworkers violating safety precautions they’ve discounted.

“Are You a Team Player?” Unsafe practices that are justified for the good of the team, company, or customer. According to the survey, 63 percent of respondents see their coworkers violating safety precautions “for the good of the team, company, or customer.”

These five unmentionables account for a vast number of accidents waiting to happen. In fact, when employees saw one of these five threats, only one in four spoke up and said or did anything to prevent the accident from occurring.

Notice none of these conversations are actually beyond discussion. There is always a minority, ranging from 25 to 28 percent, who speak up effectively and address the unsafe situation. These few individuals have an amazing impact: 63 percent of the time they create a safer situation.

An individual with the skills to speak up in crucial moments essentially motivates the other person to behave differently based on the natural consequences of his or her behavior - in this case putting others at risk. So the problem is not that speaking up doesn’t work, it’s that speaking up doesn’t happen.

What leaders can do

So what will it take to move an entire organization from risky silence to a culture of candor and accountability?

Below are best practices safety directors and leaders can follow to both address these crucial conversations when they face them, as well as build system-wide organizational competence at resolving them.

Bang the drum. Leaders should not expect to improve their organization’s competence at these five crucial conversations without first making them visible. Sharing the data in this article is a great way to draw attention to the crucial nature of these issues and start a dialogue around how to build a culture of accountability.

Baseline and measure regularly. Leaders who are serious about building accountability regularly survey how well people are doing at addressing these kinds of crucial issues.

Invest in skills. Most safety managers and front-line employees lack the confidence to address these politically sensitive issues because they don’t know how to lead such risky discussions. Research shows a handful of people in your organization are already speaking up and preventing accidents from occurring around them. Training the silent majority in this same skill set is a powerful way to ensure the culture changes to one where everyone speaks up.

Hold senior management accountable. Investing in employee competence is necessary but insufficient. Holding sponsors, managers and executives accountable for responding to and welcoming these crucial conversations is the other half of the formula.

Reward. Finally, executives should highlight and reward people who take a risk and raise these crucial conversations on the job. They key to getting hundreds of people to speak up is to publicly reward the first one who does.

Unintended collusion

A culture of silence has created an unintentional collusion that contributes to four million injuries every year. The future of safety cannot be secured without a deep change in people’s ability to step up to and hold necessary crucial conversations. It is a change in behavior that will create a safer and more productive workplace.


1 Workers Compensation Claim Frequency Continues Its Decline in 2008, Tony DiDonato, Matt Crotts, and Melissa Brown, NCCI Research Brief, July 2009.

2 DiDonato et al, p. 1.

3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, July 2009.

4 2008 Workplace Safety Index, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 2008.

5 The Need for New Paradigms in Safety Engineering, Nancy Leveson, in Safety-Critical Systems edited by C Dale and T Anderson. Springer Verlag 2009.