Anthrax, Accountability & Workplace Accidents

workplace accidents

How Accountable is Your Staff in Preventing Workplace Accidents?

Today let’s talk about workplace accidents and near misses.

Generally speaking, if there is a major incident at work and the proverbial poo hits the fan, someone has to pay.  Such was the case with a man named Michael Farrell.  He was the head of the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention lab in June when there was a mix up with some anthrax samples.  The lab was tasked with the job of completely killing the samples before sending them to two other labs, and unfortunately these samples weren’t completely sterilized before they were sent to another facility.

Yep, that’s a bit of a boo boo.

No one got sick, but Michael lost his job.

After he resigned some people speculated that he was being made a scapegoat, as there had been significant issues with the department safety culture for quite some time.

While we aren’t here to debate the fairness in what happened to Michael, this situation does raise some discussion-worthy issues, one being the importance of accountability. If workplace accidents are to be prevented, everyone needs to be accountable for their actions–at all levels.

Accountability and a positive safety culture go hand in hand in preventing workplace accidents.

From the head honcho at the top to the guy scrubbing floors at the bottom, every person involved in the company must be accountable for workplace safety.

workplace accidentsWhat does this mean?  Essentially, everyone needs to effectively communicate with other members of their team when work isn’t being done safely.  We need to stop this culture of silence.  It’s easy to think that the small infractions don’t really matter, or that senior members are exempt because of their experience. However, if we let things slide we are not only putting ourselves at risk, we are also jeopardizing the lives of others.

There are a number of reasons why we don’t hold each other accountable, but at the end of the day, if we develop a pattern of turning a blind eye to unsafe work behavior we are setting the stage for future problems–big problems.  The term, ‘safety culture’ is often used when we want to discuss the degree to which workers buy into safety.  While this is an important element, it is also vital that workers actively participate in preventing workplace accidents by stepping up to the plate and speaking up when a member of their team is doing something that could get someone hurt or killed. That is where accountability comes in. Everyone needs to participate.

Let’s think of this as an avalanche.  In the beginning, a few flakes can’t do much harm.  And such is the way with how a few minor safety infractions are perceived.  Workers take the odd small shortcut and nobody worries about it. It’s no big deal. However, with time this type of attitude can extend to most of the workers, and just like the avalanche, it has the potential to gain momentum and pick up speed. Before you know it, everyone is taking shortcuts and working unsafely.  It becomes the new normal to work this way, and for a variety of reasons, nobody speaks up.  Minor incidents occur, but again, they aren’t taken as seriously as they should be.  And just like the avalanche, the pattern of unsafe work behavior takes on a life of its own, to the point where when something does happen–it’s big.  There is a major accident, perhaps a serious injury, perhaps a fatality.  The end result can often be that someone, somewhere in the company loses his or her job.

If we want to prevent workplace accidents we need to make everyone accountable. Everyone.

Easier said than done, right?

One of the problems with workplace accountability is that it’s a pretty fine line between disciplining workers for unsafe behaviors to the extent that they won’t report anything, and creating an environment where workers aren’t held responsible for behavior that is going to get someone hurt or killed.

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Work environments that are focused on laying blame all of the time discourage healthy communication between workers.

Why won’t workers speak up to prevent workplace accidents?

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why a group of grown adults don’t say something when they know for a fact that a co-worker is doing something unsafe, especially after something terrible happens. We know that kids often won’t speak up when they see something bad happening, but adults?  Why won’t adults?

Interestingly, there has been extensive research done into this very issue. There are numerous cases where groups of adults and kids have stood by and watched something happen without intervening.  It’s not uncommon, and this type of behavior has been coined by the psychological term ‘diffusion of responsibility’ or ‘the bystander effect.’  This refers to the phenomenon where the more people there are in a group who are witnessing something bad happen, the less likely a person is to step in and intervene.  Perhaps you recall the famous example of Kitty Genovese.  In 1964, in New York City, Kitty was coming home from work when she was stabbed repeatedly near her home.  And even though she called for help, and several people witnessed the horrific crime, no one came to her rescue until it was too late.

Take a look at this brief video to see Kitty’s story:

Kitty’s death prompted social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to begin researching the reason why so many people witnessed the horror of Kitty’s death and yet virtually no one came to her rescue. Through their research Darley and Latane discovered that people are less likely to intervene when they’re in large groups.  If people are surrounded by others when they witness an event, they are less likely to act, simply because they assume others will instead.  Their responsibility to take action is diffused to the extent that they are far more likely to watch horrific events take place and become bystanders than step in and be interveners.

And to add insult to injury, we also know that the case of Kitty Genovese has not been an isolated one. Crimes just as horrific as this one have taken place over the years with the same diffusion of responsibility phenomenon occurring.  In 2009, in Richmond, California, a teenage girl was gang raped outside her high school on prom night. The rape lasted for 2 ½ hours, and even though numerous people witnessed the event, no one stepped up to help the victim.  One witness admitted to watching the woman be beaten and raped and admitted to being in the position where he could have done something to help, but felt that “he didn’t have any responsibility for anything that happened.”

What does this have to do with workplace safety and accountability?

If, for whatever reason, people are reluctant or unable to speak up when they see something happening that they know is wrong, it is very difficult to instill a culture of accountability and prevent workplace accidents.  However, we cannot allow workers to simply be bystanders.  This culture of silence that occurs when workers repeatedly watch unsafe behavior take place cannot continue if we want to create a positive safe culture that is based on worker accountability.

workplace safetySo, what do we do?

For starters, let’s take a look at accountability.

An “accountable culture” does not mean we punish and lay blame. As corporate trainers, Vital Smarts point out, accountability is more about diagnosing and understanding the problem rather than laying blame or pointing fingers.  It is more about explaining and involving the worker in the process rather than targeting and punishing.  If we focus on blame and punishment we are only encouraging our workers to hide their infractions and avoid communicating with the team.

If we want workers to actively participate in safety and hold each other accountable for their own actions, we need to create the environment where they embrace the need to identify unsafe behavior and take actions to fix the problem.

As well, let’s not forget about the human component.  In his book The Science of Influence: How to Get Anyone to Say “Yes” in 8 Minutes or Less!, Kevin Hogan indicates that people buy with emotion and justify with logic.  If we want our workers to buy into safety we need to connect with them on an emotional level.  Rather than focusing on the rules or company stats, let’s talk about the personal ramifications of workplace accidents–how these events personally affect you, the worker.  Vital Smarts illustrates examples where companies involve all workers in workplace accidents by doing things like visiting the injured employees at the hospital or at home, or having injured employees speak to the staff to explain how their lives have changed because of the accidents they experienced.  By making that human element in safety, workers will be more likely to make that emotional connection to the event and issue and embrace the need for accountability and then actively participate in the process.

And finally, everyone must be on board for this to work.  One of the biggest influencing factors in determining what a person will do is the impact worker behavior has on his or her peers.  In many situations people will look to their peers to see how they are acting and behaving before they decide what they are going to do.  This is why the bystander effect is so profound.  In order to create a work environment where everyone is holding each other accountable for safe work behavior, everyone needs to participate.  Workers will look to each other to see if they are actually putting their money where their mouths are, so a significant amount of time and effort must be placed in getting everyone on board.

It is unfortunate that Michael Farrell lost his job.  Whether he deserved to lose his job or was being made a scapegoat–we will never really know.  However, one thing that we can learn from this is the importance of taking measures before a major incident takes place.  Be proactive and take the time to get the entire staff to see the value in workplace safety and accountability and everyone will be better off for it.

Edge Safety Solutions is proud to announce that we are currently developing an online Flood Safety Training Package.  Click here if you are interested in learning more about our flood safety training. 

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