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Why Cheerleading for Safety Doesn't Work

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

- Dr. Todd Conklin, Pre-Accident Investigation Podcast Host and Author

If only it were this simple!

As the Experiential Consulting team travels around the country to offer risk management support to clients, we see many risk management strategies, not only in the outdoor programs we work with, but also by society in general - airports, highways, construction sites, schools, even restaurants. Many of these strategies fall into the category of "cheerleading" - trying to inspire others by dangling goals or uplifting word of encouragement, or by tracking progress. It's a common and intuitive approach, to try to lead people towards the shining light of safety - some would even say, into a "culture of safety." But are these efforts achieving what they intend to?

Some examples of safety cheerleading that 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 just a directive to "Be Safe!"

- Signs that meticulously show every single piece of equipment that a worker is expected to wear at all times.

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. But here's the thing: Not only does it not work, 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 data and 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 manager wants to be the one who has to walk out and change the sign from 297 "incident free days" back to zero again?

In any case, this approach lends itself to blaming workers when accidents happen, and identifying "human error" as the cause of incidents rather than trying to actually learn what might prevent those incidents from recurring. Dr. Sidney Dekker has referred to this effect as "structural learning disabilities" caused by the stated goal of zero accidents. Studies have even shown that organizations that set a goal of "zero" are actually more likely to have less reported incidents, but more reported fatalities (see Sherratt and Dainty study). For more on setting risk management goals that are not based on "zero," see our blog post.

When viewed through this lens of human error, incidents and injuries "don't just happen." Someone must have been at fault! If only they had followed the signs, done what they were told, if only they had tried harder, or cared more, about safety... This is where the philosophy behind the signage reveals itself, a tactic of convenience for safety managers, reinforced and even required by regulators in many instances, where safety comes from the top down, seeing humans as a problem to be managed, a workplace in which we need to remind people to focus more, care more, just be safe.

I was sitting in a car on a ferry here in my home state of Washington a few days ago, and noticed a worker step out of the box truck he was driving, dutifully wearing a bright yellow safety vest. Taking a closer look, underneath the company name was the word SAFETY in bright letters, with small print underneath: CHOOSE TO BE SAFE. Again, the intent seems to be good, but let's assume for a moment that this worker wants to be safe, is doing his best to be safe, but may nonetheless at some point experience an injury regardless - one bad enough that he can't hide it, even if he wanted to.

Did he, in that moment, choose not to be safe? Was it a "preventable" error, one that we can chase down through an exercise like root cause analysis? Or was it egregious enough that he might even be disciplined in some way, made an example of for others, or perhaps even terminated for not "choosing to be safe?"

In the words of Dr. Todd Conklin, "Blame makes error a choice." With the gift of hindsight, after any incident occurs, we can always locate human error. It's there 100% of the time, in some way. But if we stop looking once we've found human error, we are almost certainly missing the larger part of the story, lessons we can learn to change the workplace conditions for the future.

Implications for outdoor programs: When visiting or working with programs that have adopted a zero vision, we have seen an approach that looks good on the surface, but is not good for the front-line staff or leaders in the field. They don't believe it's possible, they feel powerless to do anything about it, and they worry what might happen to them if an incident does, in fact, occur. It creates an environment not of safety, but of mistrust and fear.

Another issue we see for outdoor programs, especially those operating inside of a larger entity (for example, an outdoor program embedded within a larger school / university / company) is that they can suffer from "signage saturation" - that is, so many warning signs that attention gets diluted away from the things that actually matter, or people become numb to what's most important. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw many programs react by posting copious signage on their property and inside vehicles, on entrance doors, etc. Interestingly, much of that signage is still there - probably because no one even sees it anymore, one of the ripple effects of signage saturation.

If outdoor programs define their safety goal as eliminating all errors, then we are inclined to post more signs imploring people to try harder, to care more, to not make mistakes. If we realize that a better approach is to assume people may make mistakes, that leads us to build resilient systems and workplaces that can absorb and withstand mistakes. This is why cars are built with seatbelts and airbags - based on the assumption that they will crash at some point. Telling people to try harder and care more won't make us more resilient. In fact, cheerleading for safety may directly or indirectly cause more harm.

Potential Action Steps to Consider:

  • Examine your program and facilities, looking for examples where you may be cheerleading for safety. What does this approach say about your beliefs on human error as a (primary) cause of incidents?

  • Explore to see if you have excessive signage, outdated signage, or even signage saturation, at play? Could you perhaps benefit by removing some of the redundant (or outdated) signage?

  • Empower someone to consciously and intentionally remove unnecessary or unhelpful signage in order to refocus on concepts that make a meaningful difference.

Sources Cited:

Conklin, T. Pre-Accident Investigation Podcast Safety Moment, August 5, 2015 (available on Podbean app)

Dekker, S. Foundations of Safety Science (2019) p. 128.

Reason, J. Human Error (1990).

Sherratt, F. and Dainty, A.R.J. UK Construction Safety: A Zero Paradox (2017) (quoted in Dekker p. 129)

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