Why Do Workers Choose To Get Hurt or Killed?

They may not know it at the time, but workers (and companies) make choices that result in workplace accidents. While there are many contributing factors to workplace accidents, on some level, bad decisions were made.

J. A. Rodriquez recently wrote an interesting article “Fatalities at West Fertilizer Company: Was the Enemy of Safety Responsible?” on how workers engage in “incremental rationalization” to bit by bit justify ultimately disastrous decisions. He analogizes to our incremental justification in deviating from a diet where the rationalization proceeds from, “I know that I shouldn’t have it” to “maybe just this once,” to “I deserve this,” and so forth.

I have been associated with almost 500 workplace fatalities and my partner, Ed Foulke, another 200 or so. We have analyze these accidents, and close to 70% involved errors by well-trained personnel. Most of those individuals were described as solid good people, among the best in the Company, or devoted to their family.

And yet they made decisions which caused or contributed to their death, and as in confined space entry cases, perhaps the deaths of others.

The common explanation is that we  become “nonchalant” about hazards to which we are daily exposed. However,  Mr. Rodriquez has further explained this seeming nonchalance by explaining that this mind-set gradually develops over time.

Companies and their leaders share the blame for allowing a culture that tolerates this attitude. Sometimes entire businesses may engage in this stealthily creeping “incremental rationalization.”

I frequently refer to “guy disease” . . . the seemingly endless capacity of males to make unwise and unsafe decisions despite clearly knowing better. Sorry guys . . . women may be open to criticism on other fronts, but they simply do not as readily by-pass steps, cut corners, or just plain make bone-headed mistakes. But even we chromosomally challenged males didn’t start cutting corners and becoming nonchalant about major safety issues… we got there slowly.

Corporate Leaders Must Maintain A Culture Constantly Reminding Workers To Work Safely

It comes back to that oft used, seldom understood term, “culture.” Corporate leaders must drive the type of culture in which employees are continually reminded to pause, think, and make wise safety decisions. Continuously experiment; keep it interesting. Repetition is a good thing.

Almost all executives state that safety is their first priority, and generally they mean it. However, many of the same leaders do not know much about their safety processes, and are not focusing on the safety in the same fashion they work to obtain the corporation’s other goals.

After experiencing a workplace fatality, serious injury, or large OSHA citation, executives may quickly grasp that it’s their responsibility to “change the safety culture.” We all know “where the buck stops.” But exactly what is their culture…?

The employer first needs to determine their safety culture, and few employers utilize one of the most effective tools – an employee safety attitude survey. A recent Fisher & Phillips survey of some of the most safety-conscious employers found that only 16% regularly use such surveys.

We use such surveys in other contexts, so why not use them for safety as well? HR-driven employee attitude surveys are less effective without safety inquiries, so perhaps questions about the safety culture can be incorporated into existing tools.

We’ll discuss employee safety culture surveys in our next blog.


About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
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