Levels of safety and safety measures within the workplace are emotive subjects for the majority of organisations’ stakeholders whose interest in safety range from moral to profit grounds.
Despite significant safety-related improvements, the International Labour Organisation estimates that some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents every year – this corresponds to over 6000 deaths every day. Additionally, there are some 374 million non-fatal work-related injuries each year, resulting in more than four days of absence from work. Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents annually. The human cost of this daily adversity is vast and the economic burden of poor occupational safety and health practices is estimated at 3.9 per cent of global gross domestic product each year.
High safety risk industries, for example mining and manufacturing, apply significant resources in order to constantly refine safety policies and procedures. Figure 1 is an example of the range of practices a typical mine applies. These practices are extensive and consist of preventative measures and reactive measures, and also include leading and lagging safety performance indicators.
Our world-wide experience from consulting to mining and manufacturing industry clients led us to believe that many organisations are reaching a state of marginal returns in the pursuit of increased modifications and additions to safety practices.
Which additional initiatives should be considered that, proportional to traditional practices, will result in increased safety levels? When we consider the question, we need to be reminded that 99 per cent of incidents and accidents are caused by human error. Equipment failure, falls of ground, non-compliance and outdated procedures are all examples of human error. This solicits a further question: if human error practically causes all incidents and accidents, do we really understand the consequences of our employees’ thoughts and feelings (also referred to as employees’ state of mind) that led to said errors? And even if we do, do we have the necessary processes in place to support employees in this regard? Most organisations have some form of employee wellbeing support that typically addresses health and financial related concerns. The support, however, is often reactive and unfortunately sometimes subsequent to unsafe behaviour.
Our behaviour (actions) are determined by our thoughts and feelings and are also referred to as our thinking (or rational) and emotional drivers of behaviour. Figure 2 illustrates the major elements of the human brain. Our thinking and feeling take place in two areas namely the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the frontal lobe which lies in front of the motor area and is mainly involved in thinking about the future, making plans, and taking action. The amygdala is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. There are two, one in each hemisphere or side of the brain. This is where emotions are processed, given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them (that is, emotional memories). Examples of emotions are joy, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear.
When we are highly emotional (positive or negative) up to 75 per cent of our prefrontal cortex capacity is used to manage our emotions – from there the saying that someone was too emotional to see events clearly and to act accordingly. Employees and leaders at all levels of the organisation experience stresses from many sources that include amongst others the following: leader-member exchange tension; strain between team members; production pressure; and perceived unsafe or unfair work conditions. Leaders and employees may also have to deal with personal challenges related to marital, health, community, and financial concerns.
Figure 3 depicts the so-called below the surface or unseen antecedents that determine our behaviour. Thoughts and feelings can be referred to as our state of mind. Importantly our state of mind is not a personality trait – we can change it, and we can control it. It does not mean “that is the way we are”.
The typical behaviour that results from excessive negative and positive emotions (and therefore consumes too much of our rational or thinking brain) is:
- a) Lack of vigilance – not mentally alert to the situation and environment;
- b) Lack of caution – not thorough and careful;
- c) Lack of, or over-confidence – low level, or unrealistic self-belief;
- d) Non-compliance – not respecting standards and procedures; and
- e) Lack of resilience – unable to persist in the face of difficulty and ability to bounce back.
What should management do, from a psychology of safety perspective, to not only improve safety levels, but also productivity? Figure 4 indicates a process to achieve the aforementioned.
The process involves the following role players: the employee; a fellow team member; the employee’s leader; and the Human Resources department. The foundation of the process is self-awareness, self-management and support from others. The illustrated process is preceded with an awareness exercise to enhance management and employees’ understanding of the basics principles of the psychology of safety.
The process starts with data and information gathering consisting of a self-assessment, an assessment of the employee by a self-selected team member (brother/sister’s keeper), and an assessment by the employee’s leader. The assessment gathers data and information on the employee’s perceived level of vigilance, caution, confidence, compliance, and resilience. Feedback is subsequently provided to the employee. Being a process, the assessment step takes place periodically.
Equipped with the feedback (self and others), the employee would typically be required to develop and commit to a set of stop-start-continue actions. The commitment would be to the employee’s leader and his/her brother or sister’s keeper. The employees and their leaders are also workshopped on ways to improve vigilance, caution, etc. The stated process gathers individual-focussed information complementing the typically Human Resources-driven employee wellbeing processes.
To conclude, management can achieve significant and sustainable performance improvement by:
- a) Acknowledging that employees’ (and management’s) performance is often constrained by a state of mind that inhibits rational thought;
- b) Empowering themselves and their employees with essential practical knowledge on the psychology of safety; and
- c) Implementing a process that improves self-awareness, that requires commitments to behaviour change and is supported by individual coaching and systemic Human Resources-driven activities.
Gellar. E.S. 2001. The psychology of safety handbook. 2nd Edition. Lewis Publishers.
Harvard Business Review. March-April 2021.
Beatty, S. 2000. The human brain: essentials of behavioral neuroscience. 1st Edition. London, UK: Sage Publications. Inc.