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Why Don’t Workers Intervene When They See Unsafe Acts?


There’s no question that employees know the difference between right and wrong and when it comes to safety interventions it often has nothing to do with that. So why don’t more employees intervene when they see someone exhibiting at-risk behavior in the workplace?

There are a number of factors that influence whether a person will take the action to intervene when they witness a safety hazard, like:

  1. They need to physically see the risky situation beginning to unfold
  2. The company’s culture and safety climate need to make them feel safe to speak up 
  3. They need to have the communication skills to say something effectively

This is not strictly a workplace problem; it’s a growing problem off the job too. Every day people witness things on the street and choose to stand idly by. This is known as the bystander effect—the more people that witness an event, the less likely anyone in that group is to help the victim. The psychology behind this is called diffusion of responsibility.  Basically, the larger the crowd, the more people assume that someone else will take care of it—meaning no one effectively intervenes or acts in a moment of need.

This crowd mentality is strong enough for people to shirk their known responsibilities. But it’s not only frontline workers who don’t make safety interventions in the workplace. There are also instances where supervisors do not intervene either.

Ensuring a safe workplace is always at the top of the list of responsibilities for both employers and their employees, which is why it seems so shocking when people don’t intervene when they should. When a group of employees sees unsafe behavior not being addressed at a leadership level it creates the precedent that this is how these situations should be addressed, thus setting the standard (and defining the safety culture) for everyone.

Despite the fact that workers are encouraged to intervene when they observe unsafe operations, this happens less than half of the time. Fear is the ultimate factor in not intervening. There is a fear of retribution, fear of what friends/coworkers will think or a fear that their job will become harder or they’ll have to do more work if they intervene. Unsuccessful attempts in the past are another strong contributing factor to why people don’t intervene—they tend to prefer to defer that action to someone else for all future situations.

On many worksites, competent workers must be appointed. Part of their job is to intervene/refuse to let workers perform a task without the proper equipment or if the conditions are unsafe. Competent workers are also required to stop work from continuing when there’s a danger.

Supervisors also play a critical role. Even if a competent person isn’t required, supervisors need a broad set of skills to not only identify and mitigate workplace hazards but also build a safety climate within their team that supports intervening and open communication among them.

Beyond competent workers and supervisors, it’s important to educate everyone within the organization that they are obligated to intervene if they witness a possible unsafe act. Whether you’re a designated competent person, a supervisor or a frontline worker, here are three important rules for conducting a safety intervention:

  1. Keep it positive. Body language and tone of voice play a big factor in a positive safety intervention. Interventions are meant to help and maintain a safe environment within the workplace but it’s common for people to oppose them. Avoid criticism and discipline in these interventions, as you will otherwise be faced with resistance and it will ultimately discourage future interventions. Remember that you’re trying to help and there’s a good chance the person might not know that they were performing the task unsafely.
  2. Choose your words carefully. In addition to keeping things positive, it’s important not to single a person out. Instead of making an accusation by using the word “you”, try to incorporate “us” or “we” instead. People don’t like to be put on the spot. If you address the problem in a way that makes it seem like you’re educating the group instead of shaming a person for their misstep, it will go a lot further. Another great way to correct behavior is to ask them to explain how these tasks should be performed safely. This way they can correct the situation and by providing the explanation they will better remember it in the future.
  3. Timing is everything. It’s not always possible to intervene in a way that doesn’t address the person directly in the moment—especially when a stop-work is required. But it doesn’t have to be embarrassing. Assess the danger of the act and ensure that everyone is out of harm’s way. The timing of the conversation you have is the most important factor. You can still have a one-on-one discussion with the worker to discuss the unsafe condition in which they were working. This is especially important when the intervention involves a supervisor. Intervening in front of a crew could lead them to distrust their supervisor in future work situations so your reaction in the moment is pivotal.

Proper safety interventions can affect many aspects of a business. It greatly increases positive interactions between teams, encourages all levels of employees to be more involved in safety, and can improve the overall safety culture. Know whether you need a competent person on-site, ensure your supervisors are well-trained and talk to your employees about safety interventions—it may just be the intervention they need.

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