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Why do workers take risks?

By Bryan McWhorter | Last updated: November 18, 2019
Presented by AD Safety Network

What a great question I’ve actually talked with a lot of executive, managers, people in leadership roles about this very question. Why do workers take risks? It just seems so silly to, again, take unnecessary risks. What people need to realize is risk comes with rewards. There’s a reason why they’re taking these risks and it really all comes down to the work culture. A culture can be defined as the beliefs and values and practices, what’s normal for that culture. Well if it’s normal to put production and work ahead of safety, that’s the way it’s going to be then. There’s going to be a lot of risk taken. What we need to realize, and people in leadership roles especially need realize is, we take risks for a reason.


Everything we do, according to psychology, is based on three motivators. We have three motivations for most of our activities for most of the things that we do the choices we make. And those motivations are:

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

So let’s take a quick look at those and see how they line up with safety behavior.

That first one, “The desire for reward” as I mentioned with culture, what is valued in that work culture, if it’s very much production driven, that’s our reward, it’s succeeding at work. We all want to win at what we do. No mechanic or person in sales or in any field of work wants to explain why they failed at something. If I’m a mechanic being judged against other mechanics doing the same job on a different shift, I want to meet the same production yields they do. I want the same low scrap rate they have. Our reward is succeeding at work.

Now that second thing “The avoidance of pain”. When it comes to understanding pain we have to understand really two perspectives. The first perspective with avoidance of pain, we need to realize that most often than not, we worry about emotional pain over physical pain. Again we put emotional pain in the forefront and physical pain in the background. We’ll risk an injury to protect, again, that reward that we’re going after. Another thing that we need to realize when it comes of pain is we don’t believe as humans technically that we’re going to get hurt anyway. There’s something in our psyche that says “You know what? It’s not going to happen to me.” I’ve ridden a motorcycle without the helmet on. I’ve driven my car many times say without a seatbelt. We normalize this behavior, we’ve done it successfully so you know what “I can work without that guard on”, “I can work on the equipment on-the-fly”, it becomes normalized.

So again those two perspectives in terms of avoidance of pain is number one we got to realize that we’re usually talking about emotional pain not physical pain because the second part is we don’t think we’re going to get hurt anyway. We’ve done it before a few times successfully so that kind of deviant behaviors become normalized and if the culture supports it, wow, again, safety is not even in the picture yet.

That third motivator is the conservation of energy. Safety takes extra time and effort and almost always does. It requires time to do lockout tagout, to go get the right tools, to put on PPE, and again if the culture doesn’t value that, it is not going to be done. As a matter fact, if you have a culture that is very production driven, and someone does take the time to do things the safe way, they are probably going to catch a lot of peer pressure and ridicule, being mocked for taking the time to do that because safety is not valued.

So again we need to look at those three motivators and we need to look at our culture. Where is the momentum again people will go with the path of least resistance? So if there’s more momentum and energy towards getting the production done or succeeding, probably we’re not going to give whole lot of time and effort and thought to safety.

What we need is to drive safety as very important. We want to achieve all those things, we want to be successful but you know what people want that too, so you don’t really need to promote that. You need to promote safety. We need to identify hazards and put safety measures, control measures in place so people don’t have to take risks. People shouldn’t have to risk injury to earn a paycheck. So we need to put in that safety culture. We need to find out why people are taking risks and again mitigate that. Shift that culture make safety more important than it is.

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

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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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