Assuming that all humans consider their own lives to be the most valuable gift, one would be inclined to believe that safety work is an easy task or even superfluous. People are rational beings, they will do anything to avoid physical harm or pain and consequently eliminate causes for potential danger; that is the theory. The reality, however, looks somewhat different.

For many years, employees in the production area of a food company have changed the knives of a cutting machine as a maintenance routine. The sharp edges are arranged in fixed sets that are removed in blocks. Wearing the required safety gloves during this work was part of the safety regulation. Since the work related hazard was so obvious, all workers without exception adhered to this rule.

Intuitive dangers

One day, while replacing the machine’s knives, a worker dropped one of the knife blocks. Instead of letting the dangerous device fall on the floor, he tried to catch it. He intuitively reached out for the falling knife block and closed his fingers around it with more force than normal. Instantaneously, the knives cut through the gloves and injured the worker’s hands. The spontaneous impulse to avoid the loss of the knife block overruled any rational action according to the safety first principle. As it turns out, the selected safety gloves were neither sufficiently cutproof nor suitable for gripping sharp knives tightly, which was, admittedly, not a standard situation.

What had happened?

The production team had developed a good safety awareness and collectively chosen the protective gloves when the machine was introduced. The team had even performed a pilot test to evaluate their choice. Assessment criteria comprised, among others, cut resistance and wearing comfort during daily operations. Finally, the team was proud of the joint decision and relying on the protective gloves became a normal routine in the company. No one ever questioned the instruction. Consequently, all team members were truly shocked by the accident that proved the self-imposed safety measures as insufficient. Emotions rose very high after the incident. Confidence in their own safety management swayed.

However, this case came to a positive end. After contacting the cutting machine’s manufacturer, the food company found out that special protective housings were available in the meantime. These housings are designed to cover the knife blocks before being taken out of the machine, so workers could handle the hazardous blades without danger.

In order to be successful, the introduction of the new procedure again involved the complete team. Each member could be convinced that by applying the new technology a higher level of safety would obviously be reached. The new rule was soon generally accepted.

We conclude from this incident the importance of repeating risk assessments on a regular basis, even if people believe they do everything right and feel safe. Furthermore, this incident serves as a positive example of people’s willingness to adhere to safety rules if they are truly convinced of their suitability.

What is the reason for dangerous behaviour? What is so important to humans that they act against common sense, threatening their own lives?

In order to demonstrate the underlying thought process of obviously irrational behaviour, we would like to present another typical example from our consulting experience.

“in some situations even the clearest instructions of wearing and taking off protective gloves won’t help, since feelings of mistrust weigh stronger than any rationality”

Chemical protection

Workers in the chemical industry are required to wear protective gloves when in direct contact with chemical products. Since traces of these substances can adhere to the surface of the gloves, the workers have to take the gloves off while touching items like door handles, handlebars and computers. This is to avoid endangering colleagues who touch the same items with bare hands.

However, employees frequently forget to remove their gloves in these situations or they simply don’t do it because they find it inconvenient. Even worse, they do not trust their colleagues and fear harm to themselves since other workers keep their gloves on while using handlebars etc. As a result, they endanger others out of so-called self-protection, creating an absurd situation, as in the end no one in the company will adhere to this rule anymore.

Our etalon team experienced exactly this kind of situation while working for a client in the chemical industry. Some workers were carrying bottle carriers with protective gloves when our team encountered them. The workers knew instantly that they were making a mistake. When we addressed them their response was: “We saw colleagues from the night shift carrying the bottle carrier with gloves, so we are using a clean pair of gloves to protect ourselves.”

Another example for breaking this rule we witnessed was a worker putting a clean cloth in his hand with the protective glove when using the handlebar, in order to avoid polluting the handle.

Our conclusion? Employees tend to find incredibly creative solutions from which they feel a personal benefit while sacrificing the complete team’s safety. The false behaviour in our example results in an unmanageable set of different behaviour patterns and eventually leaves all workers without any clear set of rules. Here, even clear instructions of wearing and taking off protective gloves won’t help, since the feeling of mistrust weighs stronger than any rationality.

Personal fears

Personal fears have the strongest impact on safety behaviour. A company can only change the workers’ attitude if the management actively intervenes, pointing out the potential dangers for everybody by making up their own personal safety mechanisms and integrating the workers in finding an acceptable solution for safety at work. According to our experience, it would be necessary to make a clear cut and introduce a safety rule for wearing protective gloves, which all workers will generally accept.

Knowing that humans do not always act according to their common sense, why do we believe we can motivate them with sensible arguments to behave correctly?

Presumably, instructions on safety at work regulations, sometimes carried out only once a year, should be sufficient for working safely. However, actual safety training in many companies reveals the opposite. People tend to choose the easy way, ignoring their cognitive knowledge of correct behaviour. Their motivation is not necessarily convenience. Improving their work situation in terms of higher productivity, i.e. acting as an “entrepreneur” can also be highly motivating. Thus, people push their own safety concerns into the background of their consciousness. Apparently, the actual advantage for the moment is more important than any potential disadvantage in the future – even if this means endangering physical integrity.

We came to realise that rationally driven maximisation of safety implies for many workers merely avoiding risks, which they regard as boring. More interesting and attractive seems to be the search for challenges and the ability to handle situations which go faster, higher and further.

The question arises: Why do safety experts and managers sometimes prefer the easy way, for instance in safety instructions? If striving for challenges and avoiding unnecessary effort is a common principle for human behaviour, safety instructions have to be more interesting.

In our consulting practice, we frequently observe safety instructions being held as passive and emotionless monologues. We all know that this form of knowledge transfer is not effective, as participants only receive and store a small amount of information this way. Businesses earning their money mainly through direct contact with their clients would be off the market soon, if using this method. However, we allow this method when it comes to our employees’ health and safety. Why are we doing this? Moreover, how can we break this vicious circle of lacking self-motivation and lack of inspiration from outside?

In fact, most people are intelligent enough to know that safety at work is important. So let us take those people more seriously by asking them about their opinions and solutions for improvement. Let us ask them how they would master certain situations at work. This also applies to wearing protective equipment, such as protective gloves.

Unsafe behaviour developing into routine

One example in our work experience reveals how important it is to talk about unusual situations requiring certain protective measures. Employees of a packaging company regularly faced disturbances during the work process. Their job was to weld plastic bags, which were supposed to be filled with liquids. Occasionally during the day, however, they got bags not filled with liquids, but with air. In order to minimise the waste volume in the waste bins for these defect products, the workers used cutter knives to cut the plastic bags and let the air out. This had become a normal routine, although it was not a standard situation in the workflow. The workers did not wear suitable protective gloves for cutting the bags. One day, a temporary worker injured himself when using the cutter knife in this kind of situation without the suitable gloves.

The following accident analysis showed that the regular risk assessments had not included this unusual work situation. The risk assessments had only referred to standard work processes. If the workers had talked or dared to talk about their problems at work, the incorrect handling of the situation would have become known much earlier. In fact, it is generally not safe to use cutter knives without cutproof gloves. Furthermore, cutting the plastic bags as such is not even an acceptable method for reducing waste. This case underlines how breaking a rule can become a routine without the management realising it, if there are no open and regular discussions with workers about safety issues.

“what is the reason for dangerous behaviour? What is so important to humans that we act against common sense, threatening our own lives?”

Guiding safety instructions

Instead of simply reading out instructions and rules, we turn the situation around by asking the employees questions, such as: “What do you need for performing this task safely?” This way, we acknowledge their professional skills at work and respect them as experts for their own safety. One important goal of instructions is motivating people to act correctly and with conviction, not just to pass on information.

This helps to make them aware and initiate their reflection on their work situation. When being asked questions during instructions, people start to reflect and we share a dialogue rather than a monologue. All instructing sessions should end with an agreement with a clear commitment signed by all participants.

You should try this method; you will surely receive useful answers and solutions. After an exchange of ideas you can call for action, i.e. demand the implementation of the suggested safety measures. Management presence and being proactively involved in safety discussions are vital signs towards the employees.

Safety talks as daily routines

Talking about safety does not require a big effort – it is mainly a matter of people’s attitudes and thus of corporate culture. Safety talks should be just as common as talking about product quality or cost savings in a company. Naturally, all workers should know about the rules, for instance when to use and remove their protective gloves. More important, however, is that they apply the safety rules in their daily routines. This requires a positive corporate safety culture, enforced by management commitment through visible signs. Here, managerial visits are an efficient and appropriate strategy. By using open questions during these visits, managers can demonstrate their focus on safety and actively integrate their workers at the same time.

The following questions to the employees have proven to be efficient in our practical consulting experiences:

  • Which dangers do you have to pay attention to when doing this work? (shows employee’s risk awareness)
  • What do you do for safety at work? (questioning the employee’s knowledge about the correct protective devices and behaviour)
  • What has happened to you that just about ended well? (reveals how good the mechanisms for improvement work in your company)
  • Can you think of anything we can improve in the future? (this question shows our respect for the dialogue partner)

Questions for the management circle:

  • What have you done so we can go home safely after this meeting? (reveals the managers’ awareness and knowledge of safety)
  • What have you personally done for health protection and safety since our last meeting? (enforces active safety work on the part of the management)

Asking the right questions supports the employees’ commitment and awareness for safety. However, we should avoid the feeling of being “interrogated”. It is crucial that the conversation is a mutual dialogue based on respect for each other.

One more thing: Don’t forget to have answers for your questions. Asking questions means leading, but leading also requires going forward – also in terms of safety.