EHS Management, Safety Culture

Why Don’t Workers Say Something When They See Something Unsafe?

Every day, workers witness actions that they know are unsafe—potentially disastrous actions that could almost certainly be stopped—but they don’t voice their concerns. Why are people inhibited in these situations? Why do we so often stay silent?

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At Safety 2017, the annual professional development conference and exposition of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Phillip Ragain of the RAD Group explored this cognitive phenomenon in a session entitled “Hardwired Inhibitions.”

Research indicates that when they see something they think is unsafe, people speak up only about 39% of the time, said Ragain. This number held true across different industries, countries, and cultures. Obviously, this is not often enough.

Stop Work Authority and the Context Effect

EHS managers hope that granting stop work authority without fear of retaliation will encourage employees to say something when they witness an unsafe situation. But does it fix the problem? Unfortunately, the answer is no, said Ragain—97% of workers said that they were given the authority to stop work at their company, but the 39% rate of stepping in to correct the situation still held fast.

The problem with stop work authority is that it only addresses one of many factors, said Ragain, and that is the fear of formal punishment for perceived insubordination or slowing of productivity. The thing is, there are plenty of informal punishments that may still apply; people who want to speak up could fear being ostracized by coworkers, overlooked for good work by their supervisors, and the list goes on. In essence, the “authority” in stop work authority is an illusion, explained Ragain.

Despite these fears regarding safety “interventions,” most workers do take this responsibility very seriously, and they believe that they would speak up. But in the moment, they usually say nothing. Why?

It has a great deal to do with something called the “Context Effect.” Basically, this effect results from an innate tendency that what we think about, care about, and remember is determined by our immediate context. To demonstrate this, Ragain found a volunteer in the audience and showed him two colors, white and black. They then had a verbal exchange very much like this:

“Sir, what color is this?”


“Good. And this one?”


“Yes. And this?”


“And this?”


“This one again?”


“Great. And this one?”


“Yes. What do cows drink?”


“Thank you.”

Of course, cows do not drink milk. They drink water. However, given the context of the conversation, the volunteer instinctively said something that he knew intellectually to be false. It’s a cognitive trick, explained Ragain, one that is put to good use by salesmen and waiters who use context to put customers in an empathic state in order to make them more likely to buy or order a particular item.

So, what does this have to do with safety interventions? The production context is very different from the safety meeting context, said Ragain. They shape and affect decisions in different ways, and while workers will say in a safety meeting without doubt or hesitation that they would speak up against something unsafe, it could end up being a different story on the actual jobsite.

Other Inhibiting Forces

Beyond the Context Effect, there are multiple other cognitive forces at work that can prevent workers from voicing safety concerns. Ragain detailed four in particular that are especially powerful in a work situation.

  1. Production pressure. It literally changes the way we see the world, said Ragain. It narrows focus, makes you tense, and everything not related to what you need to get done fades into the background and loses significance.
  2. Unit bias. To a cognitive psychologist, “bias” is a filter that makes us perceive reality differently, and unit bias refers to the fact that people are strongly inclined to finish a given unit or task before changing what they are doing. Consider the example of a manufacturing manager who says “I’ll be right there,” and finishes a relatively unimportant e-mail before going to the line when a safety issue occurs. With unit bias, workers have seen something unsafe but they just want to finish the current task in front of them before saying something, said Ragain.
  3. Deference to authority. We don’t always speak up to authorities … or in the presence of authorities, noted Ragain. If an authority asks you to do something wrong or to ignore something that is wrong, people defer responsibility to that authority figure.
  4. The Bystander Effect. Simply put, the more people there are, the less likely we are to speak up, said Ragain. In one study, 70% of participants, individually, would help an old lady who fell; however, if only one other person is around when the lady falls, this percentage drops to only 7%. We assume other people will help (or, in the case of safety interventions, will speak up)—it’s called diffusion of responsibility.

A Perfect Storm

If your systems and management are phenomenal, there’s a chance that the four factors above don’t present an issue at your company. But even without these factors in play, there is something else more ingrained that can keep us silent in the face of disaster, said Ragain, and that is the perfect storm of reactance, social incongruence, and confirmation bias.

  • Reactance is the natural urge to resist or do the opposite of what someone tells you to do. It’s the human need for exercising autonomy and independence, explained Ragain. When a worker speaks up against an unsafe action, reactance or defensiveness can be triggered in the other worker who is performing the unsafe action. Research shows that across industries, 28% of “offending” workers become defensive in these situations, and 1 in 6 actually become angry.
  • Social incongruence is the stress that we feel when we are in tension with others. Part of being human is being social and connected with those around us, noted Ragain, and the tension that could result from speaking up is profound. We’re wired to get away from that feeling.
  • Confirmation bias is evidenced by the fact that people are extremely good at justifying what they have already concluded. We can rationalize anything by paying attention to things we want to believe and discarding everything to the contrary, said Ragain. Good examples of thought processes rooted in confirmation bias include, “No one else has said anything, so it must not be that big of a deal,” or “It won’t make a difference if I speak up.”

What Can Be Done?

In the face of all of these cognitive forces and innate social tendencies we share as human beings, safety professionals want to know what can be done to address the problem at work. Can we be rewired to say something when we see something?

There are two steps in particular that can help improve the situation, said Ragain.

  1. Simply be aware of these biases, and provide your employees with awareness of them as well. Being aware of these biases and inhibiting factors allows us to overcome them.
  2. Build a culture where workers are confident that they can speak up without producing defensiveness (i.e., reactance). When this confidence is present, workers will stop “reasoning backwards” and falling victim to confirmation bias.

Instead of becoming defensive when another worker speaks up, train your employees to see safety interventions from a different perspective. To help them do this, encourage them to respond to an intervention with one simple statement that is helpful for both parties, said Ragain.

“Thank you for watching my back” goes a long way.

3 thoughts on “Why Don’t Workers Say Something When They See Something Unsafe?”

  1. Thank you for a really concise article. Although I am mainly a “quality” person, I’ve been involved with safety on a part time basis for many years. All I can see is that the truths I have read are self evident. And the are also true for faulty manufacturing from the human factor.

  2. When you have group incentives people in the group watch each others backs. If one gets hurt they all lose so when someone says something they thank them for saving everyone’s incentive.

  3. In new hire orientation and as part of our annual refresher training, employees participate in a simple exercise where they give each other permission up front to talk to one another if they see one another working unsafely or in a potential dangerous situation. Each person goes up to 3 different people.
    Here is what it looks like:
    Joe: “Hey Mike, if you see me working unsafely or about to cause an unsafe condition, will you please let me know?”
    Mike: “I sure will Joe!”
    Joe: “Thanks for looking out for me, Mike!”
    The two shake hands, as Mike now asks Joe the same question. This eases that tension point by everyone giving everyone else permission to speak up.

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