Why We Run Toward Danger, and What It Means for Workplace Safety

By Bryan McWhorter
Last updated: May 30, 2019
Key Takeaways

Cultivating a Safety First culture is one of the best ways to counter our natural attraction to danger.

Ever notice how we have an ingrained tendency to run towards danger? Our ancestors would attack a woolly mammoth if they needed food, and with minimal PPE. Unlike our Stone Age ancestors, we don’t have to risk our life to provide food and shelter, yet we still do.


We feel invincible as children and we grow up admiring risk takers. If we do get hurt, we wear our scars as badges of honor. No high school football coach ever told his team to get out there and play safe! We heard phrases like “blood makes the grass grow,” “women dig scars,” and “walk it off, Buttercup, you’ll be fine.”

This instinct is essential to understanding why addressing danger can take a backseat to getting the work done. If we are to keep workers safe, we need to know why we take risks and address it on a motivational level.


The Motivational Triad

According to modern psychology, everything we do is due to the motivational triad. Unfortunately, none of these motivators supports safety:

  • The desire for reward
  • The avoidance of pain
  • The conservation of energy

The Desire for Reward

The reward may be meeting a construction deadline. High production numbers in a factory. We are paid to get the job done and we love being a person who can git-r-done. Our focus is not on safety; it's on the task at hand. Risk brings reward. If safety gets in the way of the reward, it can easily be dismissed – just this once.

(Find out How to Build an HSE Incentive Program That Works.)

The Avoidance of Pain

When it comes to avoiding pain, our focus is on avoiding emotional pain and not physical pain. This is for two reasons. First, we don’t want to fail (remember the desire for reward). We hate explaining why we fail and avoid it whenever possible.

Second, we tend to believe that we won’t get hurt. “It will never happen to me.” This sort of makes sense. When I got out of bed this morning, I broke my record for most days spent alive. What are the odds I will do something today that changes that? We don’t want to live in constant fear, so we chose denial of the danger over safety. It is no different than playing high school football – no fear!


(Learn more about Safety and Overconfidence.)

The Conservation of Energy

Safety always requires time and effort. It takes time to put on PPE, fall arrest systems, perform lockout/tagout, and so on. If safety is not valued, extra time will not be given for following safety control measures.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Thinking

The key to controlling our emotions is long-term thinking.

Feelings, emotions, and impulses dominate short-term thinking. They lead to shortcuts, snap decisions, and complacency. Long-term thinking uses reason and logic. We need to shift our perspective to the long game of life and sustainability.

Skilled workers value safety as a critical component of professionalism. They refuse to put themselves and others at risk for a paycheck. Gambling with danger is not sustainable – at some point, luck runs out.

Creating a Safety First Culture

Instead of fighting the motivational triad (and human nature), use it to drive safety. Once we recognize that the path of least resistance leads towards danger, we can see the importance of creating a Safety First culture. Safety is proactive, or it’s inactive. Passive safety programs fail, but only every time.

(Learn How to Create a Safety First Culture.)

If we follow the lead of our emotions without reason and logic, our emotions will control us. As John Seymour says, “Emotions make excellent servants but tyrannical masters."

Whenever I provide employee safety training of any type, I explain the motivational triad and short-term thinking vs. long-term thinking. When workers shift their perspective to the long game of knowing that they are using safety controls to ensure their safety and to control feelings, impulses, and emotions, they become safety leaders.

It is all about sustainability. Regular risk-taking is not sustainable. Don’t approach work like you’re a high school football player. Work safe and keep breaking your record for most days alive.

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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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