Risk Taking and Workplace Safety

Workplace safety programs tend to place a strong emphasis on identifying and reducing hazards. It’s pretty straightforward to determine whether a blade needs to have a guard or if a tripping obstacle needs to be moved out of a pathway. But human behavior is much more challenging to evaluate and control. And it’s often flaws in personal decision-making that create dangerous situations at work. In fact, unsafe behavior is an even more frequent cause of accidents than unsafe conditions.

When an employee chooses to take a risk, they may or may not be aware of what is driving that decision. Helping workers understand how their behavior makes a difference—and helping them make better choices—can have a big impact on workplace safety.

What Behaviors Are You Rewarding?

To be fair, employees often learn to take risks at work because this is the behavior that is modeled or incentivized by their leaders or the organization as a whole. For example, if completing every job as fast as possible is consistently rewarded regardless of how the work is carried out, that’s a recipe for cutting corners. Subconsciously, workers may fear being reprimanded for falling behind more than they fear getting hurt—even if this doesn’t make sense at a logical level. Most choices throughout the day are actually made at a subconscious level. And those decisions that have most often been linked to positive emotional outcomes in the past tend to become habits.

How can you use this fact to make the workplace safer? Consider how often supervisors acknowledge or praise workers for following safety protocols. Remember that the behavior that is reinforced is the one that persists. Perhaps starting a tailgate safety meeting with a review of the last job done and positive comments about the specific behaviors that kept it incident free would be a good start. Having rules and processes in place to promote safety is good. But taking the time to notice when workers are getting it right makes a big difference too.

Creating a Culture of Workplace Safety

Besides positively reinforcing desired behavior, your organization should also:

  • Set clear expectations for safety rules and communicate these verbally and in written form.
  • Ensure managers and supervisors model the safety behavior and smart decision-making you want to see at all levels within the organization.
  • Enforce intelligent, equitable consequences for any risk-taking behavior that violates rules or that leads to incidents or near misses.
  • Invest in training, PPE, and controls that make it clear your organization cares about the safety of workers.
  • Take any questions or concerns about workplace safety seriously and communicate with workers about how you are addressing these issues.

It’s not too difficult to train in good safety habits for planned tasks and predictable environments, But the value of behavior based safety becomes most evident in situations where an employee is not being actively observed or a new circumstance comes up that requires snap decision making to prevent an accident. That’s when you know if workers have truly internalized safe behavior. To learn more about behavior-based safety and how it can reduce risk in your workplace, contact DKF for a consultation.