Posted: September 5, 2012
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Article SummaryI started my career doing what I now call “precaution advocacy,” helping activist groups figure out how to arouse environmental concern in apathetic publics. But the bulk of my corporate consulting over the past 40 years has focused instead on “outrage management,” figuring out how to calm people who are excessively concerned. Most of my outrage management clients have never asked my advice on precaution advocacy, not even in its most obviously relevant manifestation: improving worker safety. This column addresses seven sorts of safety problems, and outlines where I think risk communication can help with each. I’m particularly interested in the last of the seven: whether my signature concept of outrage might conceivably be the next new thing in occupational safety.

Seven Sources of Your Safety Problem:
Where Does Risk Communication Fit?

This is the 25th in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (edited somewhat for copyediting details) in the September 2012 issue of The Synergist, pp. 30–32.

The lion’s share of my risk communication consulting over the past 40 years has been on what I call outrage management – calming people about a risk that unduly alarms them. Much less of my time has been devoted to the opposite problem, precaution advocacy – arousing more concern when people are unduly apathetic. (The third of the three risk communication paradigms is crisis communication – guiding people who are appropriately alarmed about a serious risk.)

Most of my outrage management clients have never asked my advice on precaution advocacy, not even in its most obvious manifestation: improving worker safety. It’s not that they don’t have a safety problem, and it’s not that they don’t take their safety problem seriously. But they don’t necessarily see risk communication as a significant way to improve safety performance.

This column discusses seven sources of your organization’s safety problem – and where risk communication fits.

1.  Safety Policy

Companies that have unsafe policies need to start there; why bother improving training if employees get hurt when they do exactly what they were trained to do? Quite often companies that think safety policy is already well managed are misinterpreting their safety policy problem as something else. Productivity pressure that leads employees to cut safety corners, for example, is a safety policy problem.

The role of risk communication in safety policy is to tell management how and why policies need to change – and, in extremis, to tell the world about your company’s unsafe policies. I think safety people tend to neglect both of these roles. They neglect the whistle-blowing role for obvious reasons. They neglect the management precaution advocacy role because, too often, they’re not seen (and don’t see themselves) as part of management.

A core safety policy question in every organization is whether safety professionals are part of the policy-making apparatus or off in their own technocratic corner. (Communication professionals face the same dilemma:  Do they help decide what the company should do or simply tell everyone what it’s doing?) If safety people aren’t policy people, policy aspects of safety are likely to get short shrift.

2.  Safety Engineering

This is rightly considered fundamental. If there’s a cost-effective way to reengineer a risky situation to remove or reduce the risk, then it is foolish and maybe even dishonorable to teach employees how to cope with the risk instead. Find a replacement; engineer a failsafe.

Small safety engineering improvements are under the safety professional’s control, and there’s really not much need for risk communication. Bigger ones require a collaborative effort with operations people, budget people, etc., which again raises the question of whether the safety person is part of the management team or off in the safety corner.

And of course safety engineering solutions can create risk communication problems of various sorts. Employees need to learn how to deal with the new equipment or the new procedure; they may even need help getting used to how the new chemical smells.

3.  Safety Training

Training is the 800-pound gorilla of safety management. If you search Google Trends for “safety policy,” “safety engineering,” and “safety training,” training totally eclipses the other two in the frequency of searches and news clips, especially the U.S. That doesn’t necessarily mean that training is more important to safety professionals than policy or engineering. But it says something that when people think about improving organizational safety, they think first of teaching employees to work safer, not of making the workplace safer.

Safety training is obviously a kind of risk communication. But what kind? Some safety professionals think it’s straightforward information transmission, teaching employees how to obey safety procedures. But most have long since figured out that safety training encompasses at least three tasks:

  • Training: Teach the rules and how to obey them.
  • Education: Teach why the rules are what they are. We’re likelier to learn a safety procedure if we understand what it’s for, and likelier to obey it if we believe it makes sense.
  • Efficacy: Teach that the training worked (assuming you have evidence that it did). Training without efficacy doesn’t get implemented; employees who feel they don’t know how to perform a procedure won’t try, even if they actually do know how. Efficacy without training is even worse; employees who mistakenly think they know how will do it wrong.

The biggest problem in safety training is getting employees to pay attention. Safety training is boring. Making it less boring calls for all the risk communication sophistication you can muster. It’s not just larding your safety meeting with jokes and riddles, though jokes and riddles do help. For some less obvious ways to fight safety training boredom, see my column “Motivating Attention” the April 2012 Synergist.

4.  Safety Attention

Tough as it is to get employees to pay attention to safety training, it’s even tougher to get them to keep paying attention to safety long after the training is over. All that training is only minimally useful if they’re going to waltz into a risky situation thinking about something else, whether the “something else” is work-related or not.

Study after study has confirmed that when employees make safety mistakes, it isn’t usually because they didn’t know any better; it is usually because they never stopped to ask themselves what might go wrong and what they should do about it. They already knew the answer, if only they had asked the question.

Reminding employees about safety – again and again – helps. Teaching employees ways to remind themselves and each other helps even more.

A few decades ago this was a new insight, pioneered by DuPont and others. Thousands of organizations had made all the policy, engineering, and training progress they knew how to make (or were willing to make). Their safety records had plateaued. Then they adopted safety attention programs and got significant improvement.

From a risk communication perspective, safety attention is largely a problem of familiarity. For outsiders, insufficient familiarity with your facility may lead to excessive anxiety about its risks. But for employees, especially veteran employees, excessive familiarity leads to insufficient anxiety and, thus, to carelessness. When you find ways to make a risk unfamiliar and interesting again, attention improves for a while, and so does safety.

5.  Safety Motivation

The behavioral (or “human factors”) approach to safety has gone through three incremental phases in recent decades, from training (knowing the rules and how to implement them) to attention (remembering the rules and noticing unsafe conditions) to motivation (wanting to follow the rules and prevent accidents). When organizations with successful programs of safety policy, engineering, training, and attention eventually hit a plateau, it’s time to focus also on motivation.

“Also” is important here. You can’t let earlier emphases atrophy when you find something new to focus on.

Awards and incentives are good motivators; informal and social incentives such as praise often work better than formal, material incentives like money. Punishment works too, though it may do collateral damage; again, informal and social punishments are often the most effective ones, especially the disapproval of peers.

All rewards and punishments are extrinsic. The most effective ones also nurture intrinsic motivation. If my boss praises me when I obey safety procedures, will I learn to care about safety or only to keep on pleasing my boss? Will I continue to work safe when I get a new boss who doesn’t praise me for doing so? Cognitive dissonance theory says the best extrinsic motivators are those that are sufficient to motivate the behavior but not sufficient to fully justify it in our own minds. This forces us to develop intrinsic rationales for the behavior, which keep motivating it when the extrinsic motivators disappear.

Perhaps the most resilient finding of safety motivation research is also one of the core principles of risk communication: People are motivated by other people’s attention. Just being watched improves performance (especially if the watcher is seen as supportive, not hostile). This is the so-called Hawthorne effect, and it works for safety. But having one’s own opinions sought, valued, and integrated into policy improves performance more, and more lastingly, because it facilitates the transition from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Good behavioral safety programs are therefore intensely collaborative and participatory.

Involving employees is useful, though difficult, when the barrier to safety motivation is merely apathy. When the barrier is opposition, when employees rebel against a hated safety procedure, then the risk communication paradigm is outrage management rather than precaution advocacy, and involving employees is essential. And easy: Unlike apathetic people, rebellious people actually want to be consulted.

6.  Safety Culture

According to some sources, the term “safety culture” arose in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Certainly the term (and the concept) is most frequently used in diagnoses of safety failures. Today, virtually every industrial accident investigation dubs the accident a “failure of safety culture.”

Sometimes “safety culture” is interpreted to mean the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and values of employees. Sometimes it’s used to mean the importance placed on safety in management policies and procedures. Sometimes it’s how employees perceive management policies and procedures. And sometimes it’s the sum of all the above and more – that is, the importance of safety in “the way we do things around here.”

If “safety culture” includes every aspect of safety, then there’s no difference between a safety culture problem and a safety problem. You still need to decide whether the problem resides chiefly in the policy part of your safety culture or the engineering part or the training part or the attention part or the motivation part….

I’m open to the possibility that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The concept of safety culture, at its best, can help organizations focus not just on dangerous employee behaviors but on organizational factors that encourage or discourage dangerous behaviors, and on engaging employees in assessing and changing those organizational factors.

I think I understand the role of risk communication in managing the various parts of an organization’s safety culture. I’m not sure yet what role it plays in managing the “safety culture” gestalt.

7.   Safety Outrage

Pretty much everyone in the safety business agrees that occupational safety has plateaued yet again – not just interest in safety, but safety itself. A lot of workplaces have stopped getting safer.

In the past when occupational safety plateaued, it was usually because the low-hanging fruit of an organization’s safety programs had already been harvested. The last significant change came from focusing on motivation. Now that motivation has plateaued too, safety professionals are looking around for the next new thing.

Maybe it’s outrage. Since “outrage” is my term and my obsession, nobody should be surprised that I think so. My thinking so doesn’t make it true.

I see four aspects of outrage that have received very little attention so far from safety professionals – and that just might be the next new thing in employee safety:

Increase employees’ outrage about the risk of workplace injuries.
Mostly in the form of fear, outrage is the most intrinsic of intrinsic motivators. (“This could kill you!”) Mobilizing fear isn’t new, obviously. And it’s not without problems. Fear is hard to sustain; we get desensitized. And excessive fear can be worse than insufficient fear; it can inhibit performance (and safety!).

Still, there’s a lot of expertise out there on how to get apathetic people more outraged about the risks they face. Precaution advocacy is the most heavily researched kind of risk communication. There have been huge payoffs in everything from anti-smoking campaigns to environmental activism. Why not employee safety?

Decrease employees’ outrage about the recommended precautions.
More often than safety professionals realize, that’s really the problem. When employees don’t wear their PPE, for example, is it because they’re insufficiently afraid of getting hurt or because the mask itches and the goggles look geeky?

I have spent 40 years helping clients figure out why people sometimes feel as if small risks were huge, and how to calm them when they do. The same toolkit of outrage management strategies is available when employees feel as if the small downside of a hated safety rule were huge. Something as simple as acknowledgment can work wonders – acknowledging that there are reasons why people hate the rule, for example, or acknowledging that the safety professional’s endless warnings sometimes sound too much like your mother.

Address employees’ motivated inattention.
In the early 1990s, I put together a list of 16 reasons link is to a PDF file employees sometimes ignore safety procedures, which ranged from basic psychological biases like “it can’t happen,” “it can’t be prevented,” and “it can’t happen to me” to more situation-specific grievances like “my friends would laugh at me,” “my boss doesn’t mean it about safety,” and “management is sending a double message.”

There are outrage-grounded ways to cope with these “motivated inattention” factors, once a safety professional has figured out which ones are most damaging to the organization’s safety efforts. I have written a few articles about employee motivated inattention, though not (yet) for The Synergist.

Address employers’ (not just employees’) motivated inattention.
About a decade after I started working on why employees sometimes ignore safety procedures, a company that sells safety consulting hired me to advise it on a parallel question: Why do senior managements sometimes – often, even – turn up their noses at safety recommendations, even when those recommendations are a win-win, improving not just the company’s safety record but also its bottom line?

I started interviewing my client’s clients, and soon came up with a list of 24 reasons link is to a PDF file employers sometimes ignore safety procedures. My December 2006 column on “The Boss’s Outrage (Part I)” is a rundown on five of the 24: guilt/responsibility, ego/stature, hostility/contempt, fear/denial, and performance anxiety.

Is outrage the next new thing in employee safety? Probably not; the next new thing doesn’t usually come from someone who’s nearing retirement. But this I’m sure of: Even tried-and-true employee safety strategies like training and motivation can benefit from more focused attention to risk communication.

Copyright © 2012 by Peter M. Sandman

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