Intervention must be the norm

Despite policies requiring employees to speak up, it doesn’t always happen

Intervention must be the norm
Dave Fennell

I once had the opportunity to attend a world-class conference on human performance and human factors in safety. There were three researchers and speakers I was especially interested in because they were focusing on the fallibility of humans. I thought I was going to come away from each of those sessions with the magic pill on how to rid the workplace of these human flaws that cause incidents. That was not what I got. Instead, I heard the same conclusion from all three of these experts: “As humans, we are easily distracted and incapable of staying focused 100 per cent of the time.” They concluded that these are, in fact, not the flaws of individuals who don’t care but rather human characteristics we need to be able to manage.

I didn’t get my magic pill but what I did come away with was the understanding that because of this frailty we all possess, we need to ensure we have ways to address those occasions where our minds may drift, where we lose focus or forget a step in a procedure. I contemplated how great it would be if we all looked out for each other. I could be a lot safer if someone approached me and intervened whenever I inadvertently put myself in danger or was doing something risky — someone who would have my back.  

Who’s got your back? Are others counting on you to watch out for their safety? It is this practice of watching out for each other and fostering a culture where it is acceptable and expected that we will approach others and intervene that will make our workplaces safer. It is humanly impossible for us as individuals to be aware of every risk, and we need approachability and intervention to be the norm in our workplaces.

Most safety management systems have policies that require employees to speak up and stop at-risk work. It makes good safety sense but it doesn’t always happen. Research by the Rad Group identified that workers will step up and intervene only 39 per cent of the time when they see others putting themselves at risk. That means 61 per cent of the time, people will do nothing when others are in potential danger. The research identified the influencing factors of why we hesitate to approach others and intervene. Being aware of our hardwired inhibitors can help us understand and break down these barriers.

The first is production bias, which leads to not intervening. Our natural tendency is to complete the task and not disrupt the process; therefore, we are prepared to justify the risk in order to get the job done. Workers need the explicit support, both in words and action, from management that it is OK to stop a job when they see others putting themselves at risk.

Confirmation bias means we tend to believe that what we are already doing is right. This can extend to our view of others as well, such as: “She is an experienced worker, so what she is doing must be OK.” We allow the at-risk work to continue. Our basic safety tools, like pre-job safety plans, job site assessments, job procedures and last-minute risk assessments can be used to address confirmation bias. These tools can define how the task is supposed to be done and they give us the opportunity to step up and stop work when a task is not being done safely.  

Deference to authority occurs when we believe that the person in charge has the sole responsibility to address at-risk behaviours. Thinking, “It’s their job to do something, not mine,” is an example of this hardwired inhibitor. We expect the supervisor, the safety person or the team lead to take the action and we refrain from intervening on at-risk behaviour. Again, workers need the support from their supervisors and management to know that everyone — no matter their role or position in the company — has the authority to intervene when they identify risky behaviour or conditions.

Deference to others, sometimes referred to as the bystander effect, is similar to deference to authority in that we will hesitate to take action if others are already observing the at-risk situation and not doing anything. Workers may be thinking: “If it was really dangerous, wouldn’t someone have already said something or done something?” This becomes an issue when that same thought is going through the minds of all the other workers as well. Nobody says anything. A tool like a last-minute risk assessment or stop and think card can provide a communal approach to speaking up. You can create a safety culture where the card becomes a symbol that a team discussion is needed on the safety issue.

Each of these hardwired inhibitors has an underlying companion called social incongruity. It may not be comfortable to approach others and intervene. Your workers may be thinking: “What if they get defensive when I approach them? What if they get angry? Will my actions make a difference at all?” The work by the Rad Group identified that the recipient of the feedback become defensive one out of four times. One out of six times they become angry. When we get these reactions from the person we are trying to help, we may be reluctant to intervene again. We must create a workplace culture where intervention is viewed as positive. Someone cared enough about your safety to say something and that truly is a gift. Defensiveness, resistance and anger need to be replaced with “Thank you.” 

We are human and we will occasionally lose focus or miss a step in the procedure. We need to create a safety culture where we are looking out for each other, where we get past the hardwired inhibitors. Creating an environment of openness needs the explicit support of management and supervisors and the involvement of all workers. Formal behaviour observation programs can be the platform from which we build this culture and simple tools like a stop and think card may provide additional support.

Yes, it really would be an ideal workplace when we can get past these barriers and know that someone has our back when we are being normal fallible human beings.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of COS.