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Misguided yet Seductive: Cheerleading for Safety

September 7, 2019

"Simply asking people to care more doesn't create a system where there are less accidents. What scares me is that when we ask workers to try harder, we actually feel like we've accomplished something." - Dr. Todd Conklin


As we travel around the country to offer risk management support to clients, we see many risk management strategies, not only in the outdoor industry but also in society in general - airports, highways, cities, construction sites, schools, even restaurants. Many of these fall into the category of "cheerleading" - trying to inspire others by dangling goals or uplifting word of encouragement, or tracking progress. It's a seductive and intuitive approach, to try to lead people into the light of safety - some would even say, into a "culture of safety."  


Some examples of what we routinely see include: 

- Signs reminding workers about "Safety First" or "Your safety is our highest priority"

- Signs announcing a zero-tolerance for accidents: "Our goal: Zero Accidents" (located oddly close to smaller signs saying "REPORT ALL ACCIDENTS TO SUPERVISOR IMMEDIATELY")

- Signs counting down (XXX number of days) since last accident occurred

- Attempts to be clever:  "No Fear, No Safety.  Know fear, Know Safety!" or "Safety is NO ACCIDENT!" 

- Simplistic demands: "Manage Your Risk!" or even "Be Safe!" 


Obviously, all of this is well intended. It's meant to inspire a workplace environment where people care about safety, where they are positive reinforced, where safety is a value. We get it. But here's the thing: Not only does it not work, we believe it may actually make things worse -- either indirectly, or directly. 


- Indirect effects: All of this signage, and the time / resources / focus spent on these campaigns could be better directed in other ways. The opportunity cost of all of this is to direct energy and resources away from things that could actually make a difference.  The real effect of these efforts is that the safety managers or administrators can rest easy that they've done their best, that they'd done ... something. 


- Direct effects: One direct effect of these efforts, especially the "zero-harm" or "goal zero" approaches, is to actively suppress incident and near-miss reporting and analysis, which of course suppresses learning.


Remember the preceding example, where the "Zero Accidents" sign was uncomfortably close to the "REPORT ALL ACCIDENTS" sign? Which one is it? Which worker wants to be the one to break the company's spotless safety record? And which supervisor wants to be the one whose employee made the mistake? Which safety manager wants to be the one who has to walk out and change the sign from 211 "accident free days" back to zero again, on his or her watch?