Misguided yet Seductive: Cheerleading for Safety

"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?

Indeed, when viewed through this lens, accidents "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 OSHA 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 them to work harder, try more, just be safe. However, this approach lends itself to blaming workers when accidents happen, and identifying "human error" as the cause 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 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).

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 make an error or experience an injury - 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 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?"

Implications for outdoor programs: When visiting or working with outdoor programs that have adopted this 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, 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 what we call "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.

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 safety goal is to assume people will make mistakes, and build resilient systems and workplaces that can absorb and withstand mistakes, we see that telling people to try harder won't make us more resilient. In fact, it may even directly or indirectly cause harm. As we like to say to our clients, we would rather see you actually be good than try to look good when it comes to your risk management goals.

For more about the negative effects of "cheerleading for safety," we recommend a short podcast by Dr. Todd Conklin.

Sources Cited:

Conklin, T. Pre-Accident Investigation Podcast Safety Moment, August 5, 2015.

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

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

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