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Why Good Workers Do Not Work Safely

With occupational injury rates at an all-time low, it’s clear that employers have done a good job making workplaces safer. Yet, accidents and deaths do occur. While some are a result of recalcitrant employees or unscrupulous employers, injuries do happen to good workers in good workplaces. What leads such workers to make unsafe decisions and how can employers reduce the likelihood of this happening?


It’s human nature to take shortcuts, believing we have the knowledge and know how to get the job done as quickly as possible. In today’s fast paced world that is often riddled with concerns about job security, employees tend to push even harder. The Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Study backs this up with findings that show overexertion maintains its number one ranking as the leading cause of serious non-fatal workplace injuries, costing companies over $13.61 billion in direct costs and representing over 25% of the costs of all workplace injuries.

Climbing on shelves rather than using a ladder, neglecting to lockout/tagout, failing to wear hearing protection or other PPE, lifting improperly and so on are common shortcuts found daily in workplaces. The workers have done it often enough that a complacency sets in, “nothing bad will happen.”

While pointing out the negative consequences that can occur when taking shortcuts has value, employers and managers need to understand why workers are feeling pressure to get the job done fast. It is part of developing a positive safely culture that encourages workers to want to work safely.

Concern for productivity

Each year OSHA publishes its “Top Ten List” of the most cited violations and Fall Protection is Number
One. Despite the significant risk of injury or even death, workers continue to work without adequate protection. A 2013 study, Fall Protection in Residential Construction Sites, which appeared in the July issue of Professional Safety, studied compliance at 197 residential construction sites and found only 59 percent compliance with fall protection/prevention measures. Researchers found that many commercially available solutions were considered effective in preventing falls and could be used by crews after minimal training; however, the primary concern was the effect of a device on productivity.

Acknowledging that there is a learning curve when using a new fall protection device, which can add time to the building process, the authors of the study suggested the following solutions:

  • Repetitive use of a device to lead to long-term adoption of the technology
  • Loaning of pilot-tested equipment to contractors to allow them to integrate it into their workplace before they buy it.

Failure to use or understand Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Providing the proper PPE for the task at hand, on-going training, and understanding how it impacts the employees ability to do the job is key. Many manufacturers of PPE indicate that comfort has become almost important as protection and it behooves employers to work with manufacturers to identify the best solutions.

Resistance to new technologies

In the Fall Protection in Residential Construction Site study, experienced workers tended to rate fall protection technologies less favorably than inexperienced workers. This may be a result of greater expertise or a hesitancy to change work practices. While employers may embrace newer technology as the “latest and greatest,” workers may have the attitude ” if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” It’s harder to change behavior than it is to introduce new technologies. Managers who consciously involve workers and take their time to diffuse new technologies into the workplace often have the best results.

Inadequate screening and training of new hires and short-service employees

In the most recent BLS Report of non fatal injuries requiring days away from work, injuries and illnesses to private industry workers with fewer than 12 months of service were 30 percent of all cases. Another example is the uptick in the number of fatalities in oil and gas construction, a growing industry with many young workers taking chances that run counter to their training. Motor vehicle incidents are the main cause of death and over half of those who died were not wearing seat belts. Companies that conduct attitude testing prior to hiring are in the best position to identify applicants with a high tolerance for risk.

Attitude toward management

In recent years, there has been a seismic shift in the management of safety from a culture of compliance, discipline and fear to a strategy of engagement and making safety an integral part of the production process. Employees will perform their jobs safely when they genuinely believe that it is a natural part of their work.

bigstock-Steel-worker-on-cherry-picker-12008195Fear of retaliation, such as being fired, passed over for promotions or negative peer reaction, is one of the primary reasons workers do not report injuries or near misses. Trust between workers and employers is critical for employees to take ownership of their role in maintaining a positive safety culture. More and more employers are recognizing the value and implementing programs to encourage workers to report safety hazards, near misses and close calls. Capt. Charles Hogemann, aviation chair of the Air Line Pilots Association, was quoted in a recent Safety + Health article, “If we can have a self-policing pride of workers out there, they can do the work of 100 inspectors.”

The shared values, assumptions, and beliefs that make up these rules drive how everything is done in an organization, and safety is no exception.