Hazards Are the Real Enemy, Not the Safety Team

By Shawn Mantel
Last updated: January 11, 2023
Key Takeaways

How we approach safety can help us overcome the "us vs. them" mentality between workers and safety professionals.

The safety team's job is to identify and control workplace hazards. Yet, safety personnel are often viewed as a safety hazard themselves.


Despite many attempts to overcome it, there continues to be animosity between the safety team, maintenance workers, and machine operators. Spend some time in a manufacturing facility and you're likely to notice that an "us vs. them" mentality has taken hold.

This is partly due to the equipment that keeps these operations running. There are several unique machines in any given facility, some of which are new while others might be decades old. Operators often rely on their own experience with the machinery to get the most out of it, rather than following a written procedure.


This is where some of the conflict arises. Safety is partly about following rigid practices and following the letter of the law. That means not only telling operators how to do their work, but telling them they've been doing it wrong. And that's not a message those operators take kindly.

It's a serious problem, but not an intractable one. There are steps safety professionals can take to reach workers and help secure buy-in for safer work procedures.

(Learn about The Difference Between Safe Work Practices and Safe Job Procedures)

Take a Positive Approach

When there is an oppositional attitude toward the safety department, things often start off on the wrong foot.

A worker notices someone from the safety department speaking with the supervisor nearby. The worker gets tense when they notice them looking over at their machine. Their stress levels increase when the safety person starts taking steps toward them.


By the time the safety person addresses the worker, it's no longer a neutral situation. The worker is already expecting the worst and bracing themselves for something bad. Their guard is already up, so it's a good idea to take an approach that helps them put their guard down.

To do that, approach the conversation in a positive and supportive way. Taking a critical tone will cement the oppositional attitude. Simply imposing rules or instructions on the worker will make them feel disrespected.

Instead, make it clear that the advice you're giving is to keep them safe and to help them be productive without putting themselves at risk. Instead of reciting a rule and asking them to follow it, give more context. Explain why the rule is needed, what it will accomplish, and be ready to address any concerns they might have.

(Learn about The Difference Between Safety Leadership and Safety Management)

The Operator Is the Expert – Treat Them Like One

"I've been doing this for 30 years without getting hurt."

If your job involves communicating safety to machine operators, you've likely heard a lot of sentences like that one.

It might seem like it comes from a place of arrogance, but there's a kernel of truth in those statements. The company may own the machines and pay the wages, but the workers feel like those machines are theirs. They take ownership of them and they know them the way only someone who works with it day after day could.

In a very real way, these workers aren't simply operators – they're experts. They know how to make the machine run. They know what steps to take when it jams or starts making an unusual sound. They have the muscle memory needed to use the equipment as efficiently as possible.

That expertise must be respected. And that is done by taking a collaborative approach to safety.

When you walk up to an operator and tell them they're using the machine wrong or you're changing the way they'll be using the equipment, you are dismissing their expertise. Instead, you should treat the safety issue as a problem that you have to solve as a team.

Take the time to understand how the equipment works. Get the operator's feedback on how to make the work safer. Work together to find a solution that solves the operator's pain points instead of creating new ones.

Start by asking questions like:

  • How do you operate the machine? Walk me through it.
  • How often do you access these areas for production and setup?
  • What kind of maintenance is performed on this machine?
  • How do you load and unload the machine?

This gets the operator actively involved while also providing you crucial information to create a safer work environment.

(Find out How to Create a Maintenance Program for Manufacturing Facilities)

Consult Before Adding Safety Equipment

Adding safety features to the equipment seems like a simple and beneficial solution. Because of that, safety personnel often assume there would be no objection to installing machine guards and other safety measures.

To their surprise, it doesn't always go so well. Instead of being grateful for the increased safety, operators are annoyed that their machine has been messed with.

Thankfully, this is easy to avoid. Instead of letting the operator know about the change once it's done, consult them before implementing it.

Walk them through the solution you plan to purchase and ask them if they foresee any problems with it. Get their input before making a final decision.

Doing this will help you secure buy-in from the operator before the solution arrives. It will also ensure that the guard will remain in place once it is installed, since the operator won't be tempted to bypass or remove it.

(Learn about Overcoming Challenges to Safeguarding Legacy Machinery)

Find the Right Solution

There is a wide range of machine guarding solutions to choose from. Finding one that will satisfy the worker, the safety objective, and the budget can be challenging. But with the involvement of all parties, it can be done.

At the end of the day, the intentions are in the right place. It's the execution that is flawed. Everyone brings a different perspective to the table, and making sure each perspective is taken seriously will help you find the a solution customized to your specific situation. More importantly, it will ensure that the operators are on board with the safety upgrade instead of resisting it.

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Written by Shawn Mantel

Shawn Mantel

Shawn Mantel started his industrial career as part of two startup companies in the T-Slotted extrusion and machine safety guarding market. He grew the businesses as an integral partner. After 22 years, Mantel started PowerSafe Automation, a machine safety guarding and automation company based in Indiana.

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