EHS Management, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

The Power of ‘Why’ in Safety

The word “why” is a small word, but it can have a huge impact on a safety program. When asked in the proper context, it can mainstream safe behavior. When answered completely, it can make your safety program a cohesive and complementary entity.


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We train, and we train, and we train some more. We audit, then we train some more. We make the physical conditions of the workplace as safe as we can, then we train some more. A little-acknowledged truth is that our workforce will only be as safe as it chooses to be. Despite our best efforts to make them safe, employees sometimes choose to behave in an unsafe manner. Why?

Motivations for unsafe behavior have been discussed by more learned individuals. Perhaps another direction in this study could expose some truths that can make our programs more effective. Maybe we should be looking at motivations for safe behavior.

What is it that makes someone do a job the safe way when the unsafe way is possibly quicker and easier? Is it fear of discipline? Not likely. Does fear of discipline deter us from exceeding the speed limit on the highway? Most rule-breakers convince themselves that (a) they will not be caught or (b) they can talk their way out of it. It applies in our workplaces, as well as on the roadways.

Fear of injury can be a motivator to do the job safely. If I do it unsafely, I might get hurt. Most of us tend to avoid pain. But, most of us also tend to overestimate our own abilities. We believe we have the knowledge and the physical dexterity to avoid an injury. After doing the mental risk/reward analysis of the task, we can convince ourselves that the risk is much higher for that guy over there than it is for me. I can do it unsafely, and I will be unscathed. So, fear of injury is not a reliable and consistent motivator for safe behaviors either.

We tend to be much more likely to perform a task if it is being performed for the benefit of someone else. When this is applied to working safely, it leads to the logical conclusion on the part of the worker that this is why I need to work safely. It is for those people waiting at home for us at the end of the day. This level of motivation can reliably create a safety mind-set and a personal commitment to working safely in the workforce—just by asking “why.”

That question is also effective in the event workers violate safe procedures. If they are asked why they did it, often by simply listening to their own answer will they realize the flaw in their assessment of the task and the potential hazards.

Answering the “why” before it is even asked is a very effective part of training. If we rely on everyone working safely as a result of merely reading the workplace rules, we will be continually disappointed. If we, however, explain the genesis of the safety rules in the context of providing workers a means to avoid injury, they are more likely to embrace safe work behaviors. Why should you follow lockout/tagout procedures? Why should you properly wear personal protective equipment (PPE)? Why should you use power tools properly? Not because we have a rule but because this is what can happen to you if you don’t, and you must remember your commitment to the people who care about you. It is easier (and more effective) to explain why a rule is in place up front than it is to explain after an injury occurs why a task should have been done safely. Again, the key is “why.”

Granted, this makes our jobs as safety professionals a bit more difficult. It requires us to be motivational. It requires us to be able to explain large concepts in easily understood terms to people who possess varying levels of interest. It requires diligence. Most of all, it requires us to take it personally. Why should we take it personally? Because each one of those people in our workforce has a life outside of the workplace, and it is our responsibility to equip and provide each person with the motivation to do his or her job in a way that has no adverse impact on that life.

There is that word “why” again. It’s a short one, but it is powerful.

Dave WilliamsDave Williams is currently Safety Coordinator at Amerimax in Nappanee, Indiana, and has over 20 years of experience in the environment, health, and safety field.