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Making Workplaces Safer – Systems and Behaviours

Why Aren’t They Working?

Twenty five years ago when I first started in the field of safety, the emphasis for improving safety was on having Safety Management Systems. I learnt that ‘accidents’ were caused by unsafe acts (presumably those of the victim) and unsafe conditions (allegedly allowed to exist by management). The systems would address these issues and provide management with guidelines on what to do and how to address the issue of safety, thereby making the workplace safer (as long as we adhered to the rules).

As the years rolled on, and as Company’s developed and ‘implemented’ safety management systems (well at least had well documented systems) it appeared that safety wasn’t getting better. Accidents still occurred despite the best systems that money could buy; safety representatives; committees; etc etc,. And so the emphasis turned to safe behaviours. After all, these ‘accidents’ couldn’t be due to management failing to control things could it? There were Risk Assessment Programmes in place augmented by training and references to responsibilities outlining who was to do what, so it must be the behaviour of individual workers.

Behaviour based safety programmes fitted nicely into the old ‘unsafe acts’ theory because it could safely assume that workers are lazy and or recalcitrant and we can ‘teach’ them to be safer and stop making these appalling choices therefore hurting themselves.

In the workplace there are those who own and control the workplace and those who work there. Understanding this simple ‘concept of control’ is where we must start if we are going to improve safety.

Those that ‘control’ the workplace have the greatest influence on whether a workplace is safe or not safe. Those people who control the workplace are employers.

Workers have remarkably little control over the workplace. So the question that should be asked is “Whose behaviour needs to be modified”?

If a worker had their fingers crushed in a conveyor, they simply made a bad choice. The ‘system’ clearly stated that safety was paramount therefore the worker should have…. Done what? Worked somewhere else? Refused to work on obviously unsafe equipment? Told their supervisor… and told the supervisor…and told their supervisor?

But the supervisor didn’t listen. He/ she did nothing. Or they did tell their supervisor and they did nothing. Or the part was on order or wasn’t installed yet. Maybe they should have told the safety committee…but records show they did and the committee did nothing. Maybe the committee made recommendations to ‘management’ but nothing has been done yet.

And so we relied on more training and more Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Reliance on administrative procedures and the wearing of PPE really sums up our attitude to safety. While useful in some circumstances it diverts attention away from the real issues – making the workplace safer, so we don’t have to rely on these controls. Such controls make no mention of guarding equipment, eliminating the things that fall on our heads, providing mechanical lifting devices and doing all this in a timely manner.

Indeed how many organisations actually have a budget for implementing safety and buying the correct controls such as guarding? - Money for safety that is not spent on purchasing PPE, training, auditing and development of safe work procedures. And who controls these issues? Certainly not the worker.
There is little opportunity for workers to send their supervisor home for the day if he or she tells someone to drive a vehicle with dodgy brakes or because they failed to fit guards to the machines, yet supervisors certainly may send workers home if they drive the forklift with dodgy brakes or operate machinery without guards just to get the job done.

In the final analysis, all safety depends on motivation. Every one, from the CEO to the shop floor must be motivated to work safely. I certainly do not believe that workers are lazy or recalcitrant when it comes to their safety. They are already motivated to work safely. They want to go home and enjoy their life outside of the work environment. Their families and loved ones – the activities that they enjoy after work are their real motivators. The reality at work however, is that most choices are not theirs (the workers) to make.

A study of accidents in British Factories revealed that:

“in every case the dangerous situation was created in order to make it quicker and easier to do this. (I assume to do it the way that led to the injury). In every case the company’s safety rules were broken.

The process failures were not isolated events. The men acted as they did in order to cope with the pressure from foremen and management to keep up production”.

Regan, in Professional Safety 1997 said that “It doesn’t matter whether people have the best intentions and safe behaviour. If equipment does not have proper guards and interlocks, accidents will occur. Experience shows that hazards cannot be adequately controlled with good intentions and rigorous behavioural control”.

So if this is all true, what does work?


Research shows that safety improves when employers and managers physically get involved. In a safety management system they allegedly show their commitment by signing off on the OHS Policy and often state that nothing is more important than safety. But how many of them actually attend the Safety Committee meetings without fail? How often do they shut down the production line until the issue is fixed because a high level risk has been identified by those most able to identify it?
How many safety inspections have they conducted or been involved in?

Safety in the workplace improves dramatically when employers and managers:

  • Work in collaboration with workers on safety related issues
  • Plan work effectively to remove production and safety conflicts
  • Involve workers in planning work activities
  • Act in a respectful way towards workers and demonstrate that the contribution of workers is valued
  • Communicate about safety regularly
  • Are open with subordinates
  • Provide feedback on safety performance after the completion of the job
  • Visit the worksite regularly

So, get involved, participate in the safety programmes. Lead by example every time, so we can all go home to our loved ones and enjoy life to its fullest.

This article was provided by Len Collie, Senior Workplace Health and Safety Consultant

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