No One Gets Hurt on Purpose

By Bryan McWhorter
Last updated: September 21, 2016
Key Takeaways

Before you can convince employees to work safely, you need to understand what motivates them.

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 really motivates employees to take risks, we can better focus our safety efforts and encourage the kind of safe behavior we want to see from them.


Humans Are Risk Takers

We all take risks. And depending on the culture of the shop floor, taking certain risks might be seen as the norm.

Employees know a task is dangerous and they try to be careful, but it comes down to the law of averages. They've taken a shortcut or rushed through the procedure a few times before and nothing happened. Besides, everyone does it.

Sooner or later, an injury will occur. And when it does, who is to blame?

It might seem obvious. Certainly, management tends to think it is. When an employee gets hurt performing a dangerous task, they're often quick to blame the employee for it.

But let's zoom back and take in the full picture.


People don't want to get hurt. But they also don't want to fail. And these two wants often come into conflict with each other. When an employee does something unsafe, it's not because they don't care about their safety – it's because they're willing to put themselves at physical risk to protect themselves emotionally.

Humans Face Danger Head On

Humans are unique in that we don't typically run from danger. In fact, a quick look at our lifestyles and history shows that we often run towards danger. When we see a problem, our reflexes can push us to intervene quickly, before we can even think it through. 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've put ourselves 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. The danger was real, but danger can be tolerated when the alternative is starvation.

We're wired with the thought that "even though there is danger, nothing bad will happen to me." We rationalize it by telling ourselves, "I have faced dangerous circumstances before and I did not get hurt." We perform dangerous tasks and get away with it, which reinforces the behavior. It gets worse: we raise our children to be this way!

When we play football, we're told to shake it off, get back out there, and that blood makes the grass grow. What you won't ever hear is 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. Meanwhile, we wonder why safety programs fail. Honestly, it’s amazing that any of them succeed!

We're competitive by nature. If we run equipment on a shift, we want to outperform the other shifts. If your shift has the highest production yield and the lowest scrap rate, life is good. You are emotionally safe (though not necessarily physically safe) and you can stand tall and respected for your expertise. Most of us want to be respected for our skill and work, not for how safe we are.

(Learn more about Safety Leadership and Empowerment)

The Motivational Triad

In The Pleasure Trap, Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer outline the motivational triad that dictates everything we do:

  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 identify one or more of these three motivators.

The Desire for Reward

The desire for reward is a strong motivation. I the moment, we're driven by our emotions, impulses, and feelings. In a workplace culture driven by numbers, targets, and production, the feeling of reward is activated by hitting making and doing more – no matter what it takes.

For a mechanic on the shop floor being judged against other mechanics operating the same equipment on another shift, safety isn't at the forefront of their mind. What registers is get the job done.

For a construction worker, the same type of motivation might lead them to work fast and use equipment on the fly. Their goal is to meet the set deadline. The threat of hurt pride of being partially responsible for delaying the project outweighs the possibly physical pain of injury.

This is why management must reward safety behavior and make sure no one in a leadership role is undermining safety by encouraging unsafe acts. The desire for reward is strong, so we have to make sure we're rewarding the right thing and encouraging safe behavior.

(Learn more in Your Incentives Are Compromising Safety Culture)

The Avoidance of Pain

Our desire to avoid pain doesn't work in our favor, either. That's because we often try to avoid emotional pain, not physical pain.

Manufacturing environments can be dehumanizing. People are often measured by their production numbers, so they almost become identified with their equipment. If the equipment is running well, they are well. If the equipment is running poorly, their job may be at risk.

Some workplaces have too little loyalty for employees. They're only valued as a means of achieving production targets. They are viewed as expendable and can be reprimanded, demoted, or even terminated based on the numbers. How can we expect them to work safely when doing so could come with so much emotional pain?

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. They can then focus on staying safe physically. Those in a leadership role must continually reinforce that they care about each employee and want them to be safe.

The Conservation of Energy

We tend to take shortcuts 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 without expending more energy than you have to.

Lockout/Tagout, chocking tires, going to get the right tools – they all take extra effort. But 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!

Obstacles to Establishing a Safety Culture

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

  • We avoid emotional pain over the possibility of physical pain (we want to get the job done, even if it puts us at risk of injury)
  • We tend to assume we won't get hurt (even if we know a task is dangerous)
  • A safety culture can't take hold in a culture driven by performance and production targets (the desire to avoid emotional pain by being productive will outweigh the desire to avoid physical pain)
  • Safety takes extra effort, which goes against our innate tendency to conserve energy (we need an emotional reason to act safe)

Use the Motivational Triad to Promote Safety

Just as the motivational triad can work against safety, it can also work in its favor. Now that you understand what motivates workers, use it to benefit them.

It comes down to creating a sense of community at work. You must show loyalty to your employees. Management must care about the individual, not just their productivity.

That's not to say that you need to completely sacrifice your productive output. Quite the opposite. We are competitive by nature, so if you create a culture where employees are valued and their safety comes 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, everything improves – morale, safety, and production. This happens because employees become engaged. The motivational triad is now working on behalf of safety, not against it.

It really is that easy, and it's up to management to make it happen. Respect and protect employees, or expect accidents. It’s your call.

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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

Bryan McWhorter

Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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