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How do you create a safe working environment that everyone participates in?

It regularly causes every manager or safety expert headaches: working safely is far from being the priority during day-to-day operations. And that makes reducing the number of incidents difficult.

Where danger is clearly visible, and the consequences can be felt immediately, people are more willing to take appropriate action. But where the danger is indirect and the consequences are only noticeable in the longer term, it is a challenge to get safe working practices in action.

With the right methods, safe working is achievable for everyone.

In this article, we will take you through the psychology of safety, which buttons to push and how to ensure that safe behaviour becomes the norm.

Dangers you don’t see are most dangerous

The more tangible the danger is, the less difficulty people have in taking the corresponding measures. A firefighter will never go out without his protective clothing, helmet and other measures.

But when the danger is abstract, that which we cannot see directly or whose consequences cannot be felt immediately, we tend to downplay it. Consider, for example, radiation hazards. People often find this abstract and a far-off show, and will have more trouble taking action.
So the more remote the effects are, the harder it is to convince people to take safety measures. Also, people are often easily overconfident, thinking “that won’t happen to me.

As harsh as it sounds: if something serious happens to a colleague, or if you experience a (near) incident yourself, you become more cautious. However, this effect works temporarily; once we get used to the presence of danger, we see it as less dangerous.

However, you can use these incidents to create awareness. Through the power of repetition, it stays topical and sticks better. That follow-up is crucial.

By using an incident management system like Zenya FLOW, you create awareness and the follow-up is a logical step in the process.

Accidents and incidents never happen on purpose

Nobody gets up in the morning with the idea of causing an accident at work. Just as nobody goes out on the road with the intention of causing an accident. Yet (workplace) accidents happen every day, some of them caused by not (correctly) following rules or protocols.

By not wearing the right protective clothing, for example, or not using the right tools. Behaviour that knowingly takes the risk that an incident could occur.

So unknowingly, every time we fail to follow the rules, we run the risk of causing an accident. And yet we far from always follow those rules. Organisations then try to get employees to do so, but this is not always very successful.

The most common method of conveying safety is by providing instructions and education on rules and protocols. However, practice shows that guiding by rules often does not work.
You can give so much information and insist so much on rules, but if people do not see the importance themselves, they will quickly fall back into their old habits. So you will have to take other measures. A bit of psychology is very useful for this; if you know how to motivate someone, you can get the desired behaviour into their heads.

Punishing negative behaviour? Rather reward positive behaviour!

A common way to enforce safe working is to punish undesirable behaviour. On the one hand, workers find it normal that a punishment follows working without protective clothing. On the other hand, they feel that this punishment should not apply to them. Because if they take the risk, they have a good reason to do so (according to the employee).

Think of excuses like ‘it wasn’t close by, it was only for a moment, I’ve done it like this so many times before, nothing like this happens to me, we’ve been working like this for years etc.’

Those people actually think they should not be punished, as they know very well what they are doing. If, as an organisation, you do decide to hand out punishments, it might seem that people will start showing desirable behaviour and that safer work is therefore being done.

Unfortunately, in this situation, there is often false security: people start behaving in this way to avoid being punished, not because they are convinced that it improves safety. And what happens when there is no supervisor in sight? Right, then protection is left behind.

Rewarding good behaviour creates a safer working environment

Pavlov studied how a dog’s behaviour (drooling) is influenced by a certain action. Dogs salivate at the sight (or smell) of food. Pavlov played sounds before the dog was given food, which at some point conditioned the dog to drool upon hearing the sound.

Indeed, the sound implied to the dog that food would soon follow. So this is how Pavlov taught the dog that displaying certain behaviour (drooling when it hears a certain sound) is rewarded with food. And while opinions are divided on whether this works the same way with humans, it has been proven to some extent. After all, if you are rewarded, you are more inclined to perform desired behaviour.

But isn’t it then just like with punishment that you create false security? If the reward is money, for example, that can certainly be the case. Think of handing out a bonus if there have been no incidents. This is because then you create a culture where incidents may not be reported (anymore). That is contrary to what you want to achieve.

What does work is rewarding desired behaviour with a compliment or pat on the back. If you do this in front of others, you kill two birds with one stone. Because then you also tackle the social aspect, call it peer pressure. Because everyone wants to hear that they are doing something right, no one is really immune.

How do you create a safe working environment that everyone participates in?

Two weeks ago, we raised an issue that affects many organisations: how do you get people to understand safe working practices? We explained that nobody deliberately causes an accident or incident, but sometimes people choose to work without adequate security.

This puts employees at risk. Punishing them is often counterproductive; rewarding them works a lot better. But that’s not all you can do to motivate safe behaviour. Today, we take it a step further and dive deeper into the psychology of safe working. So that safe behaviour becomes the norm in your organisation too.

Good example follows good practice; for safe working too

A common excuse for not exhibiting desirable and safe behaviour is that others don’t do it either. Although it may sound childish, flocking behaviour is very human. Almost everyone wants to ‘belong’, be popular and not have to eat lunch alone.

So if colleagues or supervisors leave their vests and helmets on when they walk onto construction sites, others don’t really feel they have to put them on. Then you get comments like ‘but he doesn’t do it either’.

Did you know that you can influence this social behaviour that can get people to, of their own accord, engage in the desired behaviour? Now I hear you thinking: how then? This can be done in two ways.
Firstly, it is important that those with a role model function, i.e. supervisors but also management and directors, always show the desired behaviour. So if a manager visits a construction site, even if only for a few minutes, he should put on a helmet, safety shoes and a safety vest.

Medewerkers op een bouwplaats vieren veilig werken - Zenya

Make safe working fun

But then you are not there yet. If you really want to make it work, you have to make sure the desired behaviour becomes fun.

A push in the right direction: nudging safe behaviour

Another example of encouraging socially desirable behaviour is nudging. These are small cues in the environment that provoke doing the right thing.

A pair of eyes looking at you and stuck next to the request to clear your own tray led to a drop from 35% to 20% uncluttered tables in a canteen.

Nudging, can also be achieved by suggesting that someone is not alone or anonymous. For example, by wearing name tags or putting up mirrors.

Making successful working practices the norm

We don’t have to accept that people don’t seem to want to work safely. It is not strange that, despite all the warnings and education, people do not seem to want to work safely. People are creatures of habit as well as herd animals.

Just telling them what to do, especially if it differs from how they did or do something, does not stick. Something like that sticks only after repeating it about five times. But even then, education is only a supportive method.

Making the danger tangible works better, but is often only temporary. Especially if the danger or consequences are not concrete, or are only noticeable in the long term, it is difficult to convince people of this. The inconvenience and other secondary issues are often more important than safety.
But what does work? What works best is capitalising on two things that the human brain responds positively to, namely: rewards and the social norm. Nobody wants to be the outsider, and everyone is sensitive to getting compliments. If you can address these two issues, and also keep educating/repeating (and showing the danger over and over again), then you can be successful!

Learning from incidents

Bear in mind that absolute safety is a pipe dream. It is never feasible to operate 100% incident-free. But the aim is to limit incidents as much as possible. And if they do occur, make sure reporting is easy and fast so that measures can be taken to prevent any future incidents.

In addition, try to apply incident analysis. After all, in certain analyses, you also determine what human actions played a role. And based on that, you can then take action.

Want to know exactly how incident analysis can work for you? Then get in touch with our experts. They will be happy to discuss the possibilities with you.

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