As a Safety Officer for a large manufacturing facility, I have performed over 500 accident investigations. Never have I had an injured person say, “I knew I was going to get hurt if I did that.” I have had a few that were victim to their own reflexes or snap judgment. This is like realizing you made a mistake as you are making it.

If we have a better understanding of what motivates us to take risks, we can better focus our safety efforts. Safety must be set as the number one goal. The goals employees’ are measured by will drive behavior.

Humans are Risk Takers

We take risks and depending on the culture of the shop floor, and the risks taken may be the norm. Employees may know a task is dangerous, and they try to be careful, but it comes down to the law of averages. If enough risks are taken often enough, at some point injuries will occur. Who is to blame?

No one wants to get hurt. When people come to work, they are there to do the tasks that they are paid for. They have no desire to get injured performing those tasks. The really WRONG part of all of this is that when an employee gets hurt performing a dangerous task expected of him or her, who does management blame for the injury? The employee!

People don’t want to get hurt, but they also don’t want to fail. We will often put ourselves at risk physically to protect ourselves emotionally.

Humans are unique in that we don't typically run from danger. In fact, looking at our lifestyles and history, we often run towards danger. When we see a problem, our reflexes can make us intervene quickly. We move instantly to catch a falling object or stop something from rolling away. Our bodies get us into trouble before our brains realize that we're now in a bad situation.

When our ancestors had to bring down a woolly mammoth in order to eat and survive, that’s what they did; danger was an acceptable risk when faced with starvation. We are wired with the thought that even though we know there is danger, nothing bad will happen to me. After all, we tell ourselves, "I have faced dangerous circumstances before and I did not get hurt." We perform dangerous tasks and get away with it, which is how deviant behavior is reinforced. It gets worse: we raise our children to be this way!

When playing sports like American football, we are told when injured to “shake it off”, “get back in there” and “blood makes the grass grow”. You will never hear a high school football coach tell his team to get out on the field and “play safe.” We wear scars as badges of honor. Guys look to prove how fearless and tough they can be, and, meanwhile, we wonder why safety programs fail? It’s amazing to think that any succeed.

We tend to be competitive by nature. If we run equipment on a shift, we want to outperform the other shifts. In manufacturing, if your shift has the highest production yield and the lowest scrap rate, life is good. You are emotionally safe (not physically safe) and you can stand tall and respected for your expertise. Most of us want to be respected for our skill and work, and safety may not even be a factor for consideration.

In the book The Pleasure Trap, the author explains the motivational triad. We have three motivations that dictate everything we do, which are:

  1. The desire for reward
  2. The avoidance of pain
  3. The conservation of energy

In every accident I have ever investigated, I could always assign one or more of these three motivators.

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The Desire for Reward

The desire for reward is a strong motivation. In the moment, the now, not thinking so much about the future, we are driven by our emotions, impulses and feelings. In a numbers/production driven culture, the desire for reward is fulfilled by hitting the production targets. All of us want to succeed in whatever we do. “Whatever it takes” are the words we hear too often. For a mechanic on the shop floor being judged against other mechanics operating the same equipment on another shift, safety does not register first in the mind. What registers is get the job done.

If you have to take risks by working on equipment “on the fly,” or while it is running, then do it. Protect the numbers. If your production numbers are better than the other guys', you win! In construction work, this may mean working fast and taking risks to meet the set dead line. The threat of emotional pain from not reaching a goal, or looking bad and hurting your pride outweighs the possible physical pain of injury.

Management must reward safety behavior and make sure no one in a leadership role is undermining safety by encouraging unsafe acts.

The Avoidance of Pain

The avoidance of pain does not play in our favor either. Remember, emotions drive our actions moment to moment. The avoidance of pain will most often be emotional pain, not physical pain. The emotional pain is inflicted in a production culture by not hitting the numbers. A mechanic does not want to explain why the equipment is down or running poorly, so risks will be taken. End of story.

A manufacturing environment can be dehumanizing. Since people are often measured by production numbers, the equipment takes their identity. If the equipment is running well, they are well. If the equipment is running poorly, their job may be at risk.

Manufacturing environments may have little to no loyalty for the employee, and only the production numbers. Mechanics may be viewed as expendable, and if a mechanic is not performing well, based on the numbers, they could be reprimanded, demoted or even terminated.

Employees need to know that their well-being is valued, both emotionally and physically. A sense of loyalty and caring can put employees at ease emotionally. They can then focus on staying safe physically. Those in a leadership role must continually reinforce that we, as an employer, want you safe and we care about you as part of our team.

The Conservation of Energy

The last of the three motivators is always at play. We tend to take short cuts whenever we can. We all fight laziness on a daily basis. Doing anything the safe way often requires a little extra effort. If it is not valued in the existing culture, why bother? Just find a way to get it done.

Lockout/TagOut, chalking tires, going to get the right tools, etc. all take extra effort, and if safety is not valued, no extra effort will be given. Even worse is that there can be peer pressure from coworkers. If you are the only one performing a task the safe way, you will catch flack and lots of it. I have seen it, and even worse, I have seen it come from supervisors, engineers and lead mechanics!

To recap on how difficult establishing a safety culture can be:

  • We avoid emotional pain over the possibility of physical pain. We will do whatever it takes to get a job done even if it puts us at risk of injury
  • We tend to believe that even though we know a task is dangerous, I won’t get hurt. It will never happen to me
  • You will not be able to set up a safety culture in a "Numbers/Performance First" culture. Overemphasis on the numbers will undermine safety. All employees know and want to hit the target goals. They want to succeed and avoid the emotional pain that comes with failure
  • Safety takes extra effort, which goes against our wiring for “conservation of energy.” We need an emotional reason to act safe. Management must create a "Safety First" culture

Use the Motivational Triad to Promote Safety

Just as the motivational triad can work against safety, it can also work in favour of safety. Now that you understand what our motivations are, use them to the benefit of the employee. You can use the three motivators to enhance safety and productivity. I have seen this done successfully in different work environments. It comes down to creating a sense of community at work. You must show loyalty to your employees and you will receive loyalty in return. Management must care about the individual as much as the numbers. Remember, we are competitive by nature. If you create a culture where employees are valued, and their safety is always put first, they will move mountains to achieve set targets and grow the business. They will also be happier doing it!

When companies respect employees and empower them to drive change, including safety; moral, safety and production improve. This happens because employees become engaged. The motivational triad is now working on behalf of safety. It really is that easy. It is up to management. Respect and protect employees, or expect accidents. It’s your call.

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