If your organization is like many that we see, you are spending ever increasing time and energy developing SOPs, instituting regulations from various alphabet government organizations, buying new PPE and equipment, and generally engineering your workplace to be as safe as possible. While this is both invaluable and required to be successful in our world today, is it enough? The short answer is “no”. These things are what we refer to as mechanical and procedural safeguards and are absolutely necessary but also absolutely inadequate. You see, mechanical and procedural safeguards are static, slow to change, and offer limited effectiveness while our workplaces are incredibly complex, dynamic, and hard to predict. We simply can’t create enough barriers that can cover every possible hazard in the world we live in. In short, you have to do it but you shouldn’t think that your job stops there. For us to create safety in such a complex environment we will have to find something else that permeates the organization, is reactive, and also creative. The good news is that you have the required ingredient already…..people. If we can get our people to speak up effectively when they see unsafe acts, they can be the missing element that is everywhere in your organization, can react instantly, and come up with creative fixes. But can it be that easy? Again, the short answer is “no”.
In 2010 we completed a large scale and cross-industry study into what happens when someone observes another person engaged in an unsafe action. We wanted to know how often people spoke up when they saw an unsafe act. If they didn’t speak up, why not? If they did speak up how did the other person respond? Did they become angry, defensive or show appreciation? Did the intervention create immediate behavior change and also long term behavior change, and much more? I don’t have the time and space to go into the entire finding of our research (EHS Today Article) , just know that people don’t speak up very often (39% of the time) and when they do speak up they tend to do a poor job. If you take our research findings and evaluate them in light of a long history of research into cognitive biases (e.g. the fundamental attribution error, hindsight bias, etc.) that show how humans tend to be hardwired to fail when the moment of intervention arises we know where the 61% failure rate of speaking up comes from…… it’s human nature.
We decided to test a theory and see if we could fight human nature simply by giving front line workers a set of skills to intervene when they did see an unsafe action by one of their coworkers. We taught them how to talk to the person in such a way that they eliminated defensiveness, identified the actual reasons for why the person did it the unsafe way, and then ultimately found a fix to make sure the behavior changed immediately and sustainably. We wanted to know if simply learning these skills made it more likely that people would speak up, and if they did would that 90 second intervention be dynamic and creative enough to make immediate and sustainable behavior change. What we found in one particular company gave us our answer. Simply learning intervention skills made their workforce 30% more likely to speak up. Just knowing how to talk to people made it more likely that people didn’t fall victim to the cognitive biases that I mentioned earlier. And when they did speak up, behavior changes were happening at a far great rate and lasting much longer that they ever did previously, which helped result in a 57% reduction in Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) and an 89% reduction in severity rates.
I would never tell a safety professional to stop working diligently on their mechanical and procedural barriers, they should be a significant component of the foundation on which safety programs are built. However, human intervention should be the component that holds that program together when things get crazy out in the real world. It can be as simple as helping your workers understand their propensity for not intervening and then giving them the ability and confidence to speak up when they do see something unsafe.