Can Workplace Safety Be Taken Too Seriously? – An Interesting Paradigm Shift

Is it Possible to go Overboard when it Comes to Workplace Safety?

“Safety is our number one priority.”

“Safety over all else.”

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our workers.”

Have you heard any of those phrases before? Truthfully, you’ve probably heard all of them, and a hundred others, and you’ve probably even used them yourself. What’s wrong with them? Well, nothing directly, but a recent article by safety professional Rob Long had some interesting things to say about problems that actually arise from an over obsession with absolutes and a focus on what he calls “petty safety.”

In fact, Long even goes so far as to say that “nothing is more dangerous than to elevate the importance of petty safety and totally miss real safety that engages with people and understands human judgment and decision making.”

Long, himself, is a doctor of psychology, so his perspective is likely influenced by other professional experiences – everyone has their biases. That said, there’s some apparent truth to his ideas, even though I wouldn’t personally state them in such strong words. Today, I want to pick apart and reimagine some of the points he brings up in his LinkedIn Discussion, along with the reactions of others, and see where we end up.

Petty Workplace Safety

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So what exactly is “petty workplace safety”?  Petty safety, as best as I can work out, really comes down to the small; it comes down to nitpicking every little thing and becoming the ultimate workplace control freak.

Forget your safety goggles?  Fired. Did you have three points of contact at all time while climbing that staircase? No? Consider yourself cited. Temporarily park the forklift in an obscure corner of the warehouse with the forks 1.5 inches off the ground instead of flush with it?  Sorry bud, time to look for new employment!

You get the idea. The actual problem with petty safety, at least as those like Long see it, is that we start to think in terms of relatively unimportant statistics instead of actually thinking about how we can best influence our workers to be smart about their own safety and decision making.

An all-too-easy-to-see side effect of this is that workers become shutoff and paranoid, and sacrifice job performance, potential innovation, and sometimes every safer behavior in favor of adherence to the rules they think are going to make their superiors happy. This is especially true if safety supervisors (consciously or not) use petty safety rules as an excuse for a power trip, and workers fear that one small perceived mistake could cost them their job. All of a sudden, you’ve got production slowed to a crawl and safety practices that may actually be superior getting thrown out the window because everyone just wants to keep up appearances. Yikes.

Why We Emphasize Petty Workplace Safety

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When it’s all spelled out like that, it may become apparent how an over-obsession with such factors can become problematic. Even so, we still emphasize them every day. Maybe not all of us, but many of us do or have, and the “400 days without a time-loss accident” signs still plague plenty of absolutist workplaces across the country. There must be, then, some legitimate reasons for this dominant mindset…

1. We’re Required To! In short, pressure from regulating bodies like OSHA and other local authorities have a pretty tight grip on us as safety managers. Businesses can be slapped with huge fines and legal action when something goes wrong, so workplaces often work hard to make sure OSHA rules are followed precisely. Unfortunately, these rules are not always flexible enough to fit the diverse range of businesses and production setups across the country. Ultimately, safety is always on you, but personal choice factors in, and sometimes it’s better to focus on the entire picture. As long as your training is sound, covers all of the bases, and you provide any specified equipment, you’re doing your job.

2. It’s Easier. It’s no secret, discussion and collaboration can be difficult, but bossing people around and refusing to challenge your own ideas is easy. It’s not really that black and white in most cases, but it’s true that sometimes we get carried away trying to stick to what we’ve been taught, told, or ‘know’ to be true.

There are other factors to throw into the mix, but those are really two of the biggest ones. While the second one is flexible, the first one can be difficult to have an open perspective about because most employers are bound to many OSHA standards and regulations. Indeed, several users commenting on Long’s ideas seemed to feel that he wasn’t being realistic in his ideal, open, collaborative workplace safety models.

Let’s Talk Options

It’s important to note that proponents of this way of thinking aren’t actually looking for someone to not follow the rules, but to just take into account factors outside of what’s written and regulated as well. A number of social, cultural, and personal factors come into play whenever an individual makes a decision, even those at the workplace. Pretending these don’t exist is not only ignorant, but leaves us open to being surprised when we’re expecting employee decision making to follow some perfect, unchanging trajectory.

This thinking, in earlier iterations, is how ideas like ‘safety culture’ were born; people realized that what’s written isn’t all that goes into how safe a workplace is, and taking into consideration how a workforce self-regulates, perceives its own rules, and behaves solely based on the presence of fellow workers can be even more important than actions or influence of a professional tasked with overseeing safety in the same area.

Rather than be at odds, however, it’s best if these two entities work together, and I think that’s the main point that Long and people like him want us all to understand. It’s about reducing the “us vs. them” mentality amongst safety professionals, and seeing all of your employees as complex decision making machines rather than binary units who simply either follow your rules or don’t, and then have to be treated accordingly.

Results

As with anything, your mileage will vary, but there’s a lot to be said for making this type of interaction a priority. For one, ideas formed of group brainstorming and from those with various perspectives within a business are almost always superior to those formed by one “higher up.”  Often, you may find that there’s a great compromise that allows you to meet prescribed guidelines and keep workers safe in a way that also keeps them happy, all at the same time.

Another result is an improved focus; when you cut away the fat, you’ll start to see the real underlying factors of safety. A common illustration of this is the fact that real risks or close calls on safety may be unreported, or downplayed in their seriousness, because workers don’t want to reset some silly counter or get tagged as a danger or troublemaker. In these situations, it becomes quickly apparent how a system bragging about how safe your work environment is can actually be the exact thing making it less safe. Even without cherry-picking a few more examples, I think it’s apparent that there may just be something to be said about approaching safety in a smarter way, not just a stricter one.

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