Debunking 8 Common Workplace Safety Myths
These persistent safety myths are often counterproductive and believing in them can leave workers at greater risk of accidents and injuries.
Occupational health and safety is deeply ingrained in most organizations. It is a discipline that has worked its way up to the strategy table in many organizations. Getting to this point is a great achievement and organizations should consider safety part of their competitive strategy. In a world where your best competitive advantage is your workforce, keeping your employees healthy, safe, and engaged is key.
However, this implies that occupational health and safety has become a regimented discipline with predictable methods and results, which could not be further from the truth. Going through the educational requirements to become a safety professional taught me that we spend a lot of time talking about rules, regulations, and compliance but we are taught very little about what safety is and how it can be improved.
In our safety education and practice, we often sustain and replicate some myths that are actually counterproductive to safety. Some are benign and occasionally challenged, while others are veritable sacred cows, and any professional openly challenging them might even find themselves in deep trouble with their employer or client.
In an effort to chip away at them, let’s talk about some of the most widely spread safety myths.
"Safety Is Our Number One Priority!"
There is hardly an organization that doesn’t list this as their goal or value. Unsurprisingly, most organizations saying this do not give it a second thought, fully believing they are living this value.
If your organization says this, have you ever wondered whether it can even be true? Would any for-profit organization genuinely place safety at the very top of their agenda? Is it credible that when the shareholders or founders of the organization started the company they had the idea: “I will create the safest organization ever”? Isn’t it more likely they came up with an idea that would make money?
Even companies providing safety services are in business to turn a profit. The aviation industry, which is a great example for how safety should be done and which would not have a future without safety, is still in business first to make a profit and profit will take precedence.
If you find this view too cynical, let’s look at this from a different perspective. The more we invest in safety, the safer we are since we would buy and implement the most advanced solutions that would eliminate, substitute, or engineer out all hazards. There are so many automated systems nowadays, so many ways to isolate the employee from a hazard or to shut down dangerous equipment when we come close to it. No hazard, no need for PPE, right?
(Learn more in A Primer on Engineering Controls)
If safety is the number one priority, then, safety investments should account for a large number of the organization’s expenses. Instead, many companies rely on some of these measures, but mostly on administrative and PPE controls, which are the cheapest and most ineffectual forms of hazard control.
These organizations do this because they take a cost-benefit approach to safety management, trying to provide some level of hazard control to their employees, without reducing their profit margins. But if the focus is maintaining a specific level of return on investment, we can’t make the case that safety comes first. It doesn’t, it never did, and it never will in a for-profit organization.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying these organizations don’t care about the safety of their employees. They do - they really do. This is likely what pushes them to make such bold claims. And because everybody has said it for so long, no one dares say it out loud for fear of being labeled as socially irresponsible.
In a world where corporate social responsibility is a differentiator among companies, safety is a real value. Safety does indeed matter. But it's simply not a company's first priority.
"All Accidents Can Be Avoided"
If safety is the number one priority and we all care about safety above all, then it follows that with our concerted effort we should be able to avoid any and all accidents. But are all accidents actually avoidable?
We already discussed that safety is not the number one priority. Add to this the following:
- Humans are fallible
- Employees do not have control over their workplace health and safety systems
- Third parties can interfere with the work process
Despite our best efforts, some accidents are going to happen. We have espoused safety as a value for over 50 years now. And while progress has been made, recent studies have shown that the improvements are relatively minor, especially when taking into consideration how many safety campaigns and programs we’ve developed since.
"Zero Injuries Is the Only Morally Acceptable Goal in Safety"
If all accidents are preventable, surely we can reach and maintain zero injuries in the workplace, right? Many safety professionals and emplyoers will tell you not only that we can, but also that a goal of zero injuries is the only morally acceptable goal.
A quick review of the data available in the public domain about the organizations subscribing to the zero injuries philosophy reveals that while their websites tout a perfect record, the public record shows a different picture.
The big clue that something isn’t quite right with their data is the huge discrepancy between their injury rate and fatality rate. While the injury rate is lower than other organizations, their fatality rate is frequently higher, which suggests that accident reporting has been suppressed (overtly or unwillingly) due to fear of destroying the perfect record.
You can disagree with the ratios between different severities of accidents in Heinrich’s accident pyramid, but we must admit it does not make logical sense to believe that some companies have no injuries or almost no injuries, yet have a higher than average number of workplace fatalities.
Setting a goal of zero injuries is also problematic, since it does not meet the criteria for a SMART goal. Achieving “zero” does not provide any direction on who should do what to get the result. It is not measurable, since we can’t track our progress toward reaching the goal. It is not achievable, since no organization has yet achieved zero injuries for an extended period of time. And more than anything else, it is not timely: without a clear, achievable deadline, there is no urgency for the organization or the employees to reach it.
Achieving zero injuries is a ”pot of gold at the end of the rainbow”: something we will always dream to achieve, and for short periods of time, we might even do. But then we have an injury and the goal moves again to the other end of the rainbow, and we start the race again.
(Learn more in The Real Problem With Zero-Incident Safety Programs)
"Accidents Happen to Bad People Doing Bad Things"
When accidents and injuries happen, it's easy to blame the employee. Surely the employee did not follow procedure. They've done something bad, so the solution is simple: offer them training so they no longer do the bad thing.
I am sure that every single safety professional will attest that training is one of the most common corrective actions recommended within organizations after an unwanted event, and that training has been recommended because it has been perceived that the employee has not performed as expected.
As you might expect, however, it's not so simple. The reality is that our work environments are complex and unwanted events often happen when we are doing what we have always been doing, and doing it in the exact same way. The only diffrence is that on that day, some of the elements that seemed irrelevant in the past have aligned in a different way.
The reason things go right most of the time is that our employees continuously adjust to the trivial, imperceptible changes in the field. The work that seems exact, clear, and immutablely sequence from our offices is actually variable, and our employees continuously bridge gaps that would not be there if our health and safety system was as perfect as we assumed it was.
Most of the time, our employees manage to bridge these gaps and complete our project event-free. We take that as proof that our safety systems are (almost) perfect. When things go wrong, we assume the employee is the variable that caused the problem. But if anything, our employees are good people doing the best they could with the tools they have been provided in an environment they don’t fully control.
"You Can’t Fix Stupid"
This is another variation of the myth that accidents are the fault of employees behaving badly. This variant, though, sees the employee not as needing training but worse, as being untrainable. The employee is plain stupid and if our educational system failed to cure that, we certainly can’t.
Since training isn't going to work, there's only one recourse to prevent future incidents: discipline or fire the employee.
Even if we assume that the blame lays squarely with the employee, there are some issues with this view:
- If the company hires untrainable employees, firing them wouldn't be enough - at some point down the line, they'll just hire another untrainable worker and face the same problem
- Firing employees for incidents makes it less likely that others will speak up about their mistakes or near misses they were involved in, leading to underreporting and loss of knowledge
- Nothing justifies an employee getting hurt, even if you want to lay the blame on them
Most safety issues are systemic and out of the employee’s control. Despite that, the view that “you can’t fix stupid” is widespread and has been expressed to me within several organizations I have worked for.
The remedy for this, as for many other safety issues, is to not stop at the people factors. Instead, we need to dig deeper until we uncover the systemic failure that allowed the unwanted event to materialize. People are part of our system, and a problem with the people is a problem with the system.
"Safety Is the Safety Department’s Job"
This myth is a little more insidious. I've never actually heard anyone voice this out loud. In fact, you're far more likely to hear executives saying that safety is everybody's job.
While that might be true in some organizations, the reality is that it's usually the safety professionals who are sent to deal with unwanted issues, as well as their outcomes and corrections. Safety is supposed to be everybody's job, but it's the safety department that is tasked with investigating the event, finding its causes, recommending corrective action, and monitoring their deployment and implementation.
This happens because safety is perceived as a separate function, one with its own practice and methodology. I believe this to be the outcome of our historically reactive approach to safety, with its focus on investigations and regulatory compliance. Once you know how to run an investigation and can recite the state or provincial health and safety regulations, you were a safety professional and these qualifications would separate you from other functions.
While recent developments disagree with this view, many organizations still treat safety as a separate function. And by the virtue of its name, they perceive the safety department as responsible for the safety of the organization.
And while there are many reasons why safety should not be (exclusively) the job of the safety department, the most important one is that safety does not have its own specific methodology. Having gone through a number of safety certifications and receiving a diploma in health and safety, I can say that I have not been taught many essential things, such as:
- What are the main and immutable components of a health and safety management system?
- How does one build an efficient health and safety management system?
- What does a “good” health and safety management system look like?
- What is safety and how is it measured and improved?
- What are the differences between proactive and reactive safety?
- How does one involve safety stakeholders in safety and really “sell” safety?
I am sure there are many other profound issues that can be added to the list. But even a complete list and an honest effort to answer these questions will not solve the problem. This is because safety is, more than anything else, an outcome, where issues from different areas of the organization surface.
The organizational culture, poor work planning or direction, poor managerial training and performance, improper maintenance, unrealistic deadlines or poorly formulated expectations, workplace stress, unmotivating work environment, fatigue due to poor work-life balance, seldom show up in an investigation, but are often at the root of an accident.
For this reason, a good safety professional should be like a Swiss Army knife, with general knowledge of general management, production, maintenance and manufacturing practices, HR, and so on. They should be able to get insight into these disciplines and relate and work with these departments to solve systemic issues that become obvious during unwanted events or inspections. This connectivity and collaboration with all other departments and personnel are what makes safety everybody’s job, not a proclamation from a senior executive.
"Health and Safety Reduce Productivity"
This attitude also sees safety and production as separate and distinct activities. And if production is a zero-sum game, then any effort we place in safety can only take time away from production. On this view, a 30-minute safety meeting takes 30 minutes away from production time.
And, indeed, if a safety professional does safety without integrating it with production (without finding the “what’s in it for me” for each and every employee, for that day, for that task), then yes, safety can take time away from production without any return.
Things are different, however, if we look at safety as an outcome (as opposed to a process) and focus our saferty efforts not on abstract concepts but on how to optimize the production process by reducing unwanted outcomes, then it becomes clear that safety actually enhances productivity.
Supporting and improving the things that go well in all corners of business, as well as identifying and addressing non-conformance before it becomes an accident, keeps the crews rolling and avoid stoppages that unavoidably come with an unplanned event. If safety is embedded in the production process and if the focus is on continuous improvement, then safety is a production enhancer and a differentiator from the other companies that still believe that safety reduces productivity.
"A Safety Slogan Will Make Our Workplace Safer!"
Many safety myths are actually nothing more than safety slogans. And as we've seen, these safety slogans do not improve safety.
And yet, how many times have we seen companies embrace a safety slogan and launch it as if it were a valuable safety program? Personally, I have seen “our goal is zero injuries” elevated to the status of truism, and anybody calling that into question was instantly labeled as “not dedicated to safety” and therefore a danger for the organization. And if you believe that the slogan is intended to show that we are serious about safety, then it rightfully follows that any employee who does not subscribe to the slogan or question its efficacy is an unsafe employee.
There are, however, two major problems with safety slogans.
First, we think that by saying it so many times, it will become true. Not only does it not, but this shifts the burden for safety in the workplace from the employer to the employee. We told the employee what is expected, so any unwanted event must be their fault. This, in effect, results in the company abdicating its responsibility for workplace safety.
In this perverted way, a slogan becomes a weapon deployed by the organization against the employees when the organization fails to deliver on the promise of their slogan.
The second problem is that, most of the time there is nothing else beside the slogan. There is no program, no direction on how to achieve the stated goal, and no change in the way the organization operates. In those cases, the slogan is merely empty words.
A safety slogan without a safety program is useless. On the other hand, an effective safety program without a slogan will always remain a safety program. So why bother with the slogan in the first place?
These are only a few of the safety myths that have permeated occupational health and safety. Sadly, we operate in a field where myth and reality are tightly intertwined, and it will take time for these myths to die off.
These safety myths are the result of our well-intentioned search for answers that is guided by a chronic lack of data and the absence of a standardized approach. And perhaps more than anything, the mistaken belief that safety is something that is distinct from other departments and disciplines.
To eliminate these myths, we need to change our approach to occupational safety. We need to get out of our silos and accept that safety is the outcome of many departments, processes, and people. That some of these departments and people already have processes and procedures that can be applied in safety. That we do not have to invent our own systems, procedures, and lingo. That the safety department is not necessarily the response for safety problems. And that we need to work to make our unique corporate culture conducive to safety, instead of inventing a separate “safety culture.”