Why we don't work safely, and how to change it

Safety series: Most people agree to the fact that safety is important, but why do we then take unnecessary risks? Let's take a look at three enablers of behavioral change.

By: Rasmus Engelhardt, Senior Creative Advisor & Signe Raskmark, Communication Advisor (25 April 2017)

“If information was the answer, we would all be billionaires and have perfect abs.” This famous quote by Derek Sivers says it perfectly: when working with cultural change like workplace safety, you cannot rely on information and training alone. You must dig deeper into the human core and work with the hidden and unconscious drivers of behavior.

We’ve all been there; in front of the mirror looking down at our wobbly bellies shocked at the state of our bodies, or maybe we’ve just seen a documentary about sugar, and we’ve decide to cut it out of our lives for good – and we mean it this time!

But then … A couple of days later, we find ourselves carelessly stuffing our faces with a second piece of slightly dry sponge cake from the company lunch buffet. We’ve fallen back into our old habits and routines. The same happens with safety!

Most people agree to the fact that safety is important. But even if they have the right skills and knowledge to work safely, they still take risks, they still aren’t wearing their safety gear, and they still forget to rig themselves before working in heights. Why is that? And more importantly, how can we change it?

Values & beliefs – the key to safe behavior
When working with safety, organizations often focus their efforts first and foremost on what they can see, meaning employees’ actions and competencies, and they try to “fill in the blanks” with training and information. While that might be a good place to start, it will most likely only move employees through the early stages of the notorious DuPont Bradley curve.

To get to that last magic phase, where acting and thinking safely has become a natural part of the organizational culture, organizations need to dive underneath the surface and deal with the more invisible and unconscious factors that drive behavior, namely our values and beliefs.

If employees’ personal values and beliefs are unchallenged, or contradict with what’s communicated in relation to safety, they won’t act accordingly. Let’s say employees’ value honesty (crazy, right?), then it would be crucial to communicate about safety in an open and credible way – not only with words. If leaders say that safety comes first, but act in a way that highlights ‘profit’ as the true priority, the safety message is undermined.

Three enablers of behavioral change
To avoid contradiction and confusion, organizations need to strengthen the organizational values, to support the behavior they want, and at the same time, to influence how employees apply their personal values and beliefs at work. This is obviously much easier said than done, and it calls for a good amount of creative thinking.

In our experience, focusing on the following three enablers when communicating about safety can take organizations a long way towards true behavioral change:

  1. Make it important – Showing that safety is a true value for the organization is essential for getting people on-board. This could be by prioritizing a safety day, including safety in leadership principles, and of course by making sure that leaders and other important culture bearers walk the talk every day, all the time.
  2. Challenge beliefs and assumptions – Always trying to challenge what employees believe and assume regarding safety is essential when working to influence their values. This entails engaging in dialogue as often as possible, using storytelling, and appealing to people’s emotions in both the corporate, local and interpersonal communication.
  3. Show it’s possible – Continuously showing employees that their efforts matter and that achieving the safety goals is possible is essential for keeping up their motivation and focus on safety. Sharing best practice is a good way of doing this, as well as rewarding local safety achievements and showing progress with numbers and stats.

Finally, it’s important to remember that employees will smell it a mile away if organizations sugar coat or oversell the safety messages. Trust and authenticity is crucial for success.

Good luck with your safety efforts! Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have comments or questions.

To celebrate the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on Friday (28 April 2017), we at Open will share some thoughts and inspiration on the topic each day this week. Hopefully it will kick-start reflections and discussions – and help break with the bad reputation of safety communication once and for all.