It has been said that, in recent years, great progress has been made in the safety of work environments and equipment, as well as in the materials used. We have devised increasingly refined rules on how to organize companies, work environments, work processes and their interrelations, on how to train workers in various activities.
Sometimes, this effort was not matched by a similar decrease in accidents and injuries. The weak point seems to be the human factor: every now and then, workers are their own main enemies, because they resist the adoption of good safety practices in the workplace.
The worker, consciously or unconsciously, can engage in behaviours that result in little or no support for good safety practices. One of the most relevant issues in this respect is the relationship with the hierarchy, with the employer.
The worker, at times, develops a feeling of misunderstood loyalty with the employer which, often in small organizations, is perceived as “close”. These are those conditions in which, for example, safety is seen as a productive and economic burden, and the worker lends himself to relieving the employer, in part or in whole, of this burden. Often the company, the organization, is perceived as an extension of the family, and laws, regulations, and inspections, are seen as something that disturbs their tranquillity. For example, there are known cases of workers reluctant to apply for recognition of an occupational disease because of exposure to asbestos, given that they have developed a friendship with their employer for decades. Of course, the process by which safety is treated as a trivial matter, and of little importance, can take place in the good faith of the employer, with the misunderstanding of the informal messages it sends out. If the employer is more inclined to make observations relating to the time taken to work or to complain about the economic weight of running a business, and never reminds his collaborators to comply with safety regulations, it is normal that the latter are more careful to improve their work performance, rather than following the rules for safe execution.
Not to mention the messages that are explicitly issued by the employer or by the entire hierarchical chain: the underestimation of the dangers, the commiserating devaluation of everything concerning safety in the workplace, such as people, PPE, rules, are a tremendous example.
Returning to workers, the older or more experienced ones can sometimes refuse to adopt safe working practices for two reasons: the first is when it comes to the introduction of new activities, equipment or procedures, due to the natural resistance to innovation that characterizes the majority of people. But the problems may also be due to the claim, widespread among the most experienced workers, that their experience or the skills they have achieved can give them better control of operations. This is the reason for several accidents, due to lightness, to the fact that it was decided to follow a shortcut with respect to ordinary practice, to impromptu changes made on equipment and machines.
At the other end of the experience, younger and less experienced workers are prone to lukewarmly accepting safety practices in the company because they are still disoriented, due to their lack of experience in the tasks and in the workplace: they have not yet evaluated the “measure” with which to relate in the company; whether their attitude will be considered acceptable or will they be regarded as troublemakers. The low evaluation they have of themselves is also relevant, especially when they are at the beginning of their career and occupy the humblest jobs: they consider any working condition acceptable, especially in conditions of joblessness, with gratitude because, precisely, they must gain experience.
A relevant aspect of the opposition, open or creeping, of workers to the use of good safety practices is a consequence of a recurring condition in human groups: the herd effect, when the personal critical capacity is completely cancelled while waiting for orders. And since a significant part of the behaviours that can be observed in the workplace can be the consequence of informal messages such as conducts, which workers observe or infer from company management, it becomes essential for this to be aware of the importance of behaving in public consistent with the objectives of the organization’s policy, considering that every occasion is important to give a message.
Clearly, it is the responsibility of the company management, in planning related to the OHS management, to bear in mind that these factors can have a heavy impact on the result. Whether the goal is the minimum, that is, compliance with the law, the more so if more ambitious goals are set.
Author: Antonio Pedna
Independent QHSE Manager & Adviser | Master of Architecture and Construction Engineering | TechIOSH
I am a specialist in QHSE in large construction sites with over 20 years of experience in the building business.
Based between Izmir, Turkey and Milan, Italy, I work in the world of large infrastructure projects in Italy, Africa and Middle East, a highly competitive environment, where the attention to technical detail, organization, management and reporting is taken to extremes.
I’m chartered Architect, Master of Architecture and Construction Engineering, Technical Member IOSH (TechIOSH), I achieved the NEBOSH International General Certificate in Health and Safety (NEBOSH IGC) and I’m qualified Safety Manager and Safety Coordinator (RSPP, CSP/CSE according to the Italian regulations) and qualified lead/third part auditor for management system