Why Do People Get Hurt?

What do we think of when we think of safety and people getting hurt? The first is the pain and suffering of the injured worker and the increasing costs of our workers’ compensation insurance. We see the immediate and obvious implications; however, we often do not recognize the giant cost factors that are lying just underneath our noses. 

The lost time we will need to make up by hiring someone new or having our other workers fill in. The effect the injury will have on employee morale and productivity. The indirect costs of this injury, such as property damage and excessive amounts of time spent by management reporting on and following up on the incident. 

The legal ramifications of the injury and will OSHA be brought in? Will we be sued or written about in the local newspapers? How will our customers react to it? Will our OSHA frequency rates and severity rates be affected?  What will our experience modifier go up to? Will we still be eligible to bid on jobs? 

It is clear that for many reasons we do not want to have workplace employee injuries. But, how do we avoid them? We create slogans, put up posters, do employee training, provide personal protective equipment, etc. Yet, we still have injuries. How do we explain why people get hurt?

Is it inattention, as many supervisors are prone to say, or unsafe conditions, poor training, inadequate personal protective equipment? Or is it a result of unsafe behavior? We have reported for years that 10% of injuries are from unsafe conditions and 90% are from unsafe acts/behaviors. Yet we spend most of our attention on ensuring that the physical environment is hazard free and we have met the details of safety regulations, all of which needs to be done. However employees are still getting hurt.

For years now, safety professionals have talked about changing the “culture” of an organization to impact its safety program. But what does that mean to the supervisor on a worksite or an owner of a company trying to get the job done. How does he/she implement that?

We need to begin by looking at how we behave and understanding it, so that we can change it. Please note: behavior is an observable act, not an attitude or an emotion. We are not performing psychoanalysis, we are trying to effect the actions people take. Here are the ABC’s of behavior!

Antecedent: The circumstance before a behavior occurs.
Behavior: The action the person takes.
Consequence: What happens as a result of the action the person takes.

An example of this …

You are driving and you see a yellow light, what do you do? (The yellow light is the antecedent). Most people, if honestly speaking, will speed up to make it through the light! (That is the behavior) What is the consequence? Usually, you will make it through the light and get to your destination faster and with no negative effects.

NOW… Let’s change just one thing. Imagine a police car sitting on the corner of the yellow light. What do you do now? Most people will slow down. Why? What has changed? We are now concerned that we might get a ticket. The fear of a change of consequence is what changed the behavior. How do we relate this to safety? 

Let’s take another example. A piece of metal needs grinding (the antecedent). An employee begins work on the grinding wheel without safety glasses (the behavior). The supervisor walks past him and says nothing. The employee continues to have this behavior every time he has a grinding job. He goes for years with neither an injury nor a reprimand from his supervisor. The consequence is that he gets the job done with no problem. Then one day the grinding wheel breaks and pieces fly into his eye and he has a serious eye injury. The consequence has now changed and the employee will probably never perform this task again without the proper personal protective equipment because he will be afraid he will get hurt again. The same behavior could have been achieved, without the injury, if the supervisor had acted when he saw the behavior that was at risk and created a consequence for the employee that would have motivated him to do his job safely without him having to get hurt. This could have been a simple reprimand, write up, etc.

It all comes down to motivation. People perform “at-risk” behaviors because it is human nature to repeat what we have learned in the past. Most times, at-risk behavior is a short cut; it saves time, is convenient and we don’t usually get hurt. There are no apparent negative consequences and the extra time and effort it takes to avoid at-risk behavior does not “immediately” offset the low risk of getting hurt. Add to that management often turning a blind eye to at-risk behavior, choosing rather to discipline the employee after he or she is injured. 

It is management’s responsibility to provide the consequences prior to the injury.   This will motivate the employee to avoid at-risk behavior. The only way to motivate is through consequences. Consequences provide the key to performance. People behave in ways that have been optimally reinforced in the past and avoid those behaviors that have had negative consequences. 

How do we motivate employees to avoid “at-risk” behavior? We need to understand when and how we are working at risk and develop, and use, an alternative method. We need to understand how to do the job safely and develop consequences that the supervisor can use to motivate the employee to use safe behaviors and avoid at-risk behavior. 

Factors that influence consequences include timing, consistency and positive vs. negative impact. Immediate, consistent and positive consequences have the greatest impact. It is important to identify immediately and consistently at-risk behavior. However, it is a myth that stopping unsafe behaviors will result in safe behaviors to occur more often. The reality is that for safe acts to occur more often they must be actively acknowledged and recognized. We must:

• Develop both positive and negative consequences. Enforce safety rules and identify at-risk behavior. We need to have a disciplinary procedure for those employees who continue to perform at-risk behavior and an incentive program for those who act safely. 

• Instill accountability: Company owners, supervisors and employees all play a key role in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace. Owners are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace, providing the needed tools, protective equipment and training. Supervisors must be empowered to provide the employee consequences and employees must do their job utilizing safe behaviors.

We all need to take responsibility for safety. It must be an integral part of the way we work. That is the only way a truly safe and healthy workplace will exist.