What is the best way to handle unsafe behavior?

By Brie DeLisi

“Hey! what the $@&* do you think you’re doing?!” or perhaps someone just sneaks a picture of an unsafe behavior and reports it through the official reporting chain. How we handle unsafe behavior directly reflects where the safety culture is from a maturity perspective. So, what are the different ways that organizations can handle unsafe behavior and what does that mean for the culture?

Ignore it – Seeing someone performing an unsafe behavior and turning the other way demonstrates a completely disengaged safety culture. Not only is the individual going to continue to perform unsafely, but that individual has essentially been given permission to continue working in that manner. The organization and employees do not care for one another’s well-being, and we can make a strong assumption that they likely do not care about the quality of the work they are performing.

Take a picture, walk away and report it through official channels – In this next phase, someone is demonstrating that the behavior is unacceptable and either reporting to the manager or through the official reporting system. However, the individual still continued to perform unsafely and remained at risk. Sometimes it can take up to weeks for official reporting systems to make their way back to the employee and at that point, they may not even remember what they were doing. Additionally, this gives employees a sense of “big brother” watching over them, creating a culture of mistrust or fear that is fully compliance-based when being watched. Employees might warn one another to change their behavior when the safety pro is walking by and then revert back once they’ve passed. From an operations perspective, employees will not demonstrate any discretionary effort to go above and beyond to get the work done in an efficient and quality manner, instead they will do the bare minimum to collect their paycheck and get out as soon as possible.

“What the $@&* do you think you’re doing?!” – Yelling at the employee does directly confront the individual while they are demonstrating unsafe behavior and making it clear that this behavior is unacceptable. The downside is that employees will also feel attacked and will react with defence mechanisms. Instead of realizing his or her error, they will likely try to justify their actions. This also fosters a culture of compliance in which employees will keep an eye out for policing and only perform safely ‘because they have to’.

A balanced approach of concern, curiosity and caring – The best way to handle unsafe behavior is to directly and immediately address the situation with a genuine interest in the employee’s safety. As a witness, you might ask why they are taking those actions, if they are aware of the safety requirements, if they need help to perform the task safely – there might be some legitimate feedback about training, knowledge or resources. You might express a concern for what the impact would be on the individual and their family if he or she were to get hurt. When an employee feels as though their safety is genuinely cared for and that safety is a truly lived value, that will stick with them in their own personal work, as well as influencing others in the future as well.

At Propulo, we coach leaders to focus on prosocial safety behaviors and avoid pitfalls that derail safety efforts. We can help your leaders stay on track and make step change improvements in your safety performance. For more information on this topic, read about Safety & Safety Culture at Propulo Consulting.


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