Consequences of Not Speaking Up

What we learned upon completing a large-scale (3,000+ employees) study of safety interventions is that employees directly intervene in only about two of five unsafe actions and conditions that they observe in the workplace.  The obvious concern is that a significant number of unsafe operations that could be stopped are not, which increases the likelihood of incidents and injuries; but this statistic is troubling for a less obvious reason - its cultural implication.

The influence of culture on safe and unsafe employee behavior is of such concern that regulatory bodies, like OSHA in the U.S. and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the U.K., have strongly encouraged organizations to foster “positive safety cultures” as part their overall safety management programs.

Employees are inclined to behave in a way that they perceive to be congruent (consistent) with the social values and expectations, or “norms,” that constitute their organization’s culture.  These behavioral norms are largely established through social interaction and communication, and in particular through the ways that managers and supervisors instruct, reward and allocate their attention around employees.  When supervisors and opinion leaders in organizations infrequently or inconsistently address unsafe behavior, it leads employees to believe that formal safety standards are not highly valued and employees are not genuinely expected to adhere to them.  In short, the low frequency of safety interventions in the workplace contributes to a culture in which employees are not positively influenced to work safely.

These two implications – (1) that a significant number of unsafe operations are not being stopped, and (2) that safety culture is diminished – compound to create a problematic state of affairs.  Employees are more likely to act unsafely in organizations with diminished safety cultures, yet their unsafe behavior is less likely to be stopped in those organizations.

(Look for the full-length article in the May/June 2011 edition of EHS Today.)