By Peter Furst

Why do these safety myths prevail?

There are many beliefs accepted as wisdom in this industry, here’s why they’re ineffective


     he industrial revolution began in the 1830s and brought large number of workers into production facilities. If any worker got injured, they were replaced by another, with little or no consequences for the employer. This inequity caused some organizations to try to address hazardous work condition which resulted in worker injuries with a hodgepodge of interventions to reduce worker injuries.
    Over the next 75 years public concern over the state of affairs motivated the various state to pass workman’s compensation legislation. This to some extent ensured that injured workers were provided medical care and some compensation. This motivated organization to more rigorously approach worker safety, resulting in a collection of best practices which grew out of trial and error, anecdotal information, unsubstantiated data, uncorroborated assumptions, thereby creating some myths. Over time, the prevailing wisdom came to be accepted into the fabric of our "safety" culture and therefore taken for granted
    The approach to managing worker safety differed somewhat from organization to organization as well as state to state. So, to bring uniformity to safety on a national basis the OSHA Act was implemented in 1970. The standard was voluminous, defined responsibilities, spelled out procedures, required employee training, record keeping, postings, as well as the ability to inspect worksites, cite for compliance failure as well as levy fines and penalties. Organizations determined that this required special expertise and oversight and would best be separated for operational personnel responsibilities, and control. This created a separate safety function resulting in a number of operational challenges. To be discussed in future articles.


Safety and its management
Even the word itself creates issues. In Webster's Dictionary, safety is listed as a noun and defined as "the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss." Many safety associations” hold with similar definitions. Safety is not a thing that can be stored or displayed or an activity in and of itself. Safety is an outcome (a byproduct) of an activity engaged in by a person performing their daily work or task. How one goes about performing their tasks can result in that person being safe (uninjured) or sustaining an injury.
    Safety is primarily managed by historic (outcome) data, site observations (inspection) reports, accident reports, and data provided by brokers or insurance carriers. This historic data is then used to select and deploy improvement initiatives. Two major studies of accidents found that a significant number resulted from some action or behavior on the part of the person performing the work. HW Heinrich a prominent safety personality conducted a research study of over seventy thousand accident reports in 1931 and found that:
    • 88 percent of injuries resulted from actions of employees;
    • 10 percent of the accidents were traced to hazards involving the physical environment;
    • 2 percent of the accident’s cause could not be ascertained.
    In 1966, FE Bird analyzed over 1.7 million accident reports from hundreds of companies and concluded that:
    • 95 percent of injuries resulted from actions of employees;
    • 5 percent of the accidents were traced to causes from the physical environment
    It is a fact that metrics drive organizational behavior. These research studies reinforced the utilization of readily available safety (metrics) loss data as a means of focusing on the design and deployment of worker focused behavioral improvement initiatives. This resulted in the utilization of training workers in safety program information as well as the accepted body of prevailing wisdom that was engrained in the prevailing "safety" culture.

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Safety myths
There are a multitude of myths and wrongheaded beliefs in the safety arena. These myths are accepted as prevailing wisdom. As a result, some safety outcome improvement strategies deployed tend to be less than effective. Following are some safety myths and possible reasons why they are ineffective.

Safety is our number one priority
Every safety program may have such a statement. It is hard to believe that most organization founder’s goal was being the safest in their industry. Most businesses must make a profit to survive. Then it stands to reason that those activities which enhance profitability are probably the ones that get the most attention.

Safety programs ensure job site/worker safety
Most safety programs, typically regurgitating the OSHA standards, are written guidelines and not much else. Effective programs have to be designed to address the operational risks unique to that organization and to function harmoniously and effectively within the prevailing operational systems. For the program to deliver safe operations, it has to be actively managed.

Safety is common sense
An individual making that statement assumes that everyone thinks and feels the same way. That is pure nonsense! What one person perceives as "risky," another may think of as quite safe. Some people skydive, others bungee jump, some race automobiles, others rock climb. Taking risk is a very personal matter. It is based on one's appetite for risk, life experience, belief in one's capability, and/or one's ability to identify and assess exposure. To effectively manage risk, the organization must clearly define what is acceptable and what is not and then actively manage it.

Incentive programs cause workers to work safely
Generally, awards are given based on not having a recordable incident. This may potentially encourage underreporting of accidents. Workers may engage in unsafe behavior, not get injured and get rewarded for unsafe practices. More importantly, the program does not provide management with information that will assist them in identifying unsafe behavior and so fail to deploying appropriate interventions that result in changing existing practices.

Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) fosters and sustains safe behavior
This myth focuses on changing the worker’s behavior while ignoring the role of management's and management systems' influence on the perception and choices workers make impacting their behavior. Where misalignment exists in operational systems, practices, and procedures, workers may encounter task production demands which may only be achievable by engaging in at risk behavior. So, for BBS to work effectively, there needs to be an assessment of systems and management's influence on the choices the workers make that may be contrary to behavioral program expectations.

Inspections and audits will uncover most hazards and risks of injury
The safety manager may spend a couple of hours inspect the job maybe once a week and observe a particular worker a fraction of that time. In a week that worker may spend 40 or more hours working. In this example the worker may be working unsafely almost all the time with almost no safety intervention, making such as statement wishful thinking.

Progressive punishment ensures safety compliance
Punishing a worker for noncompliance does not necessarily improve their behavior. At best punishment may temporarily accomplish compliance. Punishment should be an option of last resort. The most effective way to achieve compliance or promote desired behavior is for it to be self-directed.

Safety training is a leading safety indicator
The training sign-in sheet provides proof of attend and not much else. For training to be effective, an evaluation has to be made as to what knowledge, if any, a particular worker is deficient in. Then there needs to be an assessment of what the content of the training material ought to be, selection of the method of presentation, a confirmation of the understanding of the material, and a verification that the information was relevant to the work being done and that the trainees are utilizing the information and using it effectively in their following work practices.

Workers need refresher training to keep the focus on safe work practices
This is another one of the myths that seems to have support from both safety practitioners and management. If we think about this one rationally, it is hard to accept that a reasonably intelligent person forgets the few salient points that relate to the subject of the refresher training. Ladder use is an example. There is only a half dozen or so elements to remember to accomplish proper ladder setup. Assuming that the workforce is reasonably intelligent, how is it possible that they would forget these few salient points? So, the reason for improper ladder setup might be something other than knowledge deficiency. Therefore, much of refresher training is an ineffective use of finite resources and does not address the underlying problem.

Firing noncomplying workers solves safety problems
This removes the offending worker, but doesn’t change the underlying causation, it’s like trying to cure the disease by treating the symptom. The proper way to resolve this requires finding the operational or organizational system or procedure that allowed or facilitated the offending worker to engage in the unacceptable behavior and changing it. Otherwise, the underlying system will cause the next worker to do what the fired worker did becoming the next candidate for dismissal.

    These are but a few of the myths that abound in the safety management practices of many construction organizations. Everyone in the organization is a stakeholder in safety, from the owners to managers and workers. So, it is in everyone's best interests to achieve a safe work environment. This can only be achieved through full integration of safety into operational planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling. To enable this the organization must also identify and eliminate underlying myths that are part of the shared belief system resulting in unrealistic safety management policies, practices, attitudes, and expectations.               

Peter G. Furst, MBA, Registered Architect, CSP, ARM, REA, CRIS, CSI, is a consultant, author, motivational speaker, and university lecturer at UC Berkeley. He is the president of The Furst Group which is an Organizational, Operational & Human Performance Consultancy. He has over 20 years of experience consulting with a variety of firms, including architects, engineers, construction, service, retail, manufacturing and insurance organizations. He has guided organizational systems integration, aligning business and operational goals, enhanced management’s leadership and operational execution, utilizing Six Sigma, lean and balanced scorecard metrics optimizing human and business performance and reliability. Send questions and comments to


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VOL. 57  NO. 7