Posted: November 10, 2001
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Article SummaryThis short column deals with sabotage – and the important possibility that outraged employees can pose a hazard to everyone else. It was written (obviously) before 9/11, but resonates even more powerfully now.

When Outrage Is a Hazard

The Synergist (American Industrial Hygiene Association), April 1995, p. 31
When employees are outraged, the result can be significant hazards – to themselves, other employees, and the general public.

When people are angry or frightened, they often overreact to risks that are small or even trivial in technical terms. It follows that risk management includes trying to keep people from becoming angry or frightened about technically small risks. In the language of my American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) book, link is to a PDF file videotapes and annual professional development course, it is important to manage the outrage as well as the hazard.

Over the past five years, many industrial hygienists have accepted that outrage management is part of their job. Some have become extraordinarily good at it.

But there is another connection between hazards and outrage that is even more crucial to industrial hygiene. When employees are outraged, the result can be significant hazards – to themselves, other employees and the general public.

The morale factor

A West Coast client, for example, found that one of the strongest correlates of employee back problems is morale. Employees who like their jobs and supervisors are a lot less likely to complain about back strain.

Now, some of this is the traditional relationship between hazard and outrage: Given the same physical reality, unhappy employees are more likely to think they have hurt their backs and more likely to decide to make a fuss about it.

But even though clinical evidence about back pain is famously subjective, some back injuries are independently verifiable – and these too are correlated with morale. Unhappy employees, in other words, are actually more likely to hurt themselves.

The problem isn’t just a pain in the back. Union Carbide has persuasive evidence that its Bhopal, India, accident–the worst manufacturing catastrophe in history – was caused by industrial sabotage. The guilty party probably didn’t intend to kill and maim thousands of people; he just wanted to get even for some real or imagined mistreatment by ruining a batch of methyl isocyanate.

It’s often impossible to say which industrial accidents are actually sabotage, suicide or half-intentional “carelessness” – but the statistical relationship between the accident rate and morale is well established.

And the relationship is probably getting stronger. A company that carefully trains its workers in safety procedures may also be teaching them how to wreak havoc: “Don’t ever turn valve X and engage switch Y at the same time or else…” The same company may be downsizing aggressively and letting morale decay.

At some point, the depressed employee becomes as likely a worst-case scenario as the malfunctioning apparatus – and “lean and mean” takes on an ominous sound.

IH implications

The implications of employee outrage for industrial hygienists are many. Here are four questions to start with:

  • Do your company’s quantitative risk assessments include sabotage and other intentional events?
  • Is employee morale monitored as a component of risk, and is risk reduction included in the cost–benefit analysis of measures under consideration to improve morale?
  • What are your company’s procedures for dealing with visibly distressed employees in high-risk jobs? Can a foreman reassign an outraged employee temporarily?
  • Do the company’s top risk manager and its top employee relations person ever talk to each other?

Copyright © 1995 by Peter M. Sandman

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