Attitudes to safety – the key to making workplaces safer

by 28 Mar 2012

Traditionally and quite correctly, safety awareness has been thought of in terms of organisational environment and climate.

This framework of thinking we call, for contrast, Environmental Safety Awareness (ESA). ESA is the knowledge of hazards in the environment and the proper systems, procedures and training (OHS&E or SHE) to avoid them.

More recently, however there has been an increasing understanding and focus on the human element of safety, or Personal Safety Awareness (PSA).

PSA or ‘safety thinking’ is comprised of several thinking constructs, or for simplicity’s sake, ‘attitudes’. These attitudes affect an individual’s perception, judgment and awareness of their personal ability and responsibility to avoid risks by managing hazards in the environment, themselves.

So whilst the safety culture of an organisation may promote and have in place, a visible ESA, ultimately workplace safety will be driven and defined by its people’s PSA – their motivation, ability and responsibility to think and behave safely.

Why do good safety systems fail?

Tremendous progress has been made in understanding and applying safety systems and management over the last 30 to 40 years, particularly in Australia. Developments in workplace safety training, enhanced procedural initiatives, and systems approaches have undoubtedly achieved excellent results.

Unfortunately though, no matter how well resourced or skilfully and professionally implemented, good safety systems often ‘appear’ to fail.

Incident reports often indicate human error or non-compliance as the cause, rather than environmental factors such as personal safety skills or system deficiencies as the reason for an organisation's safety or quality systems not achieving anticipated or desired results. But is a human error or non-compliance a failure of the system?

Of course, attributing incidents to human error has become very politically incorrect in many safety professional circles and forums because of a long history of blaming people at the incident site (often the injured driver, operator or worker). Blaming incidents on human error, after an incident has happened achieves nothing, but denying human error exists is ridiculous. In reality, human error occurs at all levels of an organisation and disaster investigations typically find several if not numerous human error contributors.

The great challenge continues to be in understanding and eliminating human error incidents.

Many human error incidents and injuries can be attributed to unsafe workplace attitude and behavioural factors (lower personal safety awareness -PSA), rather than 'environmental factors' such as safety skills or systems deficiencies.

Human error can be affected by perceptual distortion, fatigue, distraction or error of judgment and is directly responsible for the majority of accidents, injuries and safety or quality systems failures today. Safety risk experts predict between 91% (DNV) and 96% (DuPont) of all incidents involve some element of human error.

The safety attitudes

A safety culture characterised generally or in part by non-compliant safety behaviour and human error, is usually the result of undeveloped safety awareness attitudes in otherwise safety informed and knowledgeable people.

PSA is learned ‘non-traditionally’, usually through informal life experiences. The importance of PSA is illustrated in numerous research studies that demonstrate that people with lower attitudinal safety awareness are at greater risk, and have many more accidents and injuries.

Safety psychologists have identified three core constructs (safety attitudes) that are the primary contributors and motivators to how people think and make decisions that then influence how they are likely to behave in compromising situations.

Briefly, they are:

1. Personal safety responsibility, control and rational judgment

2. Risk perceptive and avoidance

3. Stress tolerance (distraction and fatigue resistant).

Psychologically, these three constructs determine a person’s likely safety behaviour and also reflect how a person defines who they are and how they live their life. Psychologists typically refer to this thinking structure theory as ‘locus-of-control’.

A person’s locus-of-control refers to the attitudes or beliefs about whom or what controls one’s behaviour, the consequences of which reach far beyond safety to personal, family and community life. In a safety context, individuals with an “internal” locus-of-control will generally take personal responsibility for their own safe behaviour and accident prevention. They are more able to see the relationship between behaviour and outcomes or cause and effect, so they recognised that unsafe behaviour equals more incidents and injuries.

Individuals with an ‘external’ locus-of-control tend to blame ‘accidents’ on ‘external’ factors, such as someone else being responsible for what happens to them, fate, chance or even bad luck being the cause.

Thinking such as ‘fate and bad luck cause accidents, so what do we need safety procedures for?’ will more often than not lead to short cuts with safety and sometimes more overt risk taking.

What confounds and frustrates many managers and safety professionals, is why persons who have been trained, have the knowledge and know the procedures, don’t follow them?

It is important to understand that information that is put aside and stored as knowledge is not the same as attitudes. Attitudes are impressions, motivations and drivers that will either support or undermine previous knowledge and experience.

Clearly, safety requires a complete approach to identifying and managing hazards in the environment. To be successful any strategy must also acknowledge and address human error potential. Skills and knowledge training are insufficient to attitude issues and motivations (non-compliances with systems, shortcuts and other at risk behaviours). Safety’s complete approach has to include the PSA and commitment of everyone - the person in the environment!


About the author

Carl Reams is an organisational psychologist and is managing director of People and Quality Solutions (PaQS) 


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