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Management responsibility

January 1, 2012

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Workers do not make decisions in a vacuum. Safety experts say worker shortcuts often reflect larger problems in an organization.

As director of health, safety and environment for the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers, Michael Wright looks into several industrial incidents each year. “In a lot of cases, the first thing management says is that the guy took a shortcut and, when we look at it, we see that the shortcut was almost inevitable given the way the job was structured,” he said.

'If you make safety really hard, and you make danger really easy, then it's just plain human nature that people are going to take the easy way.'
Wright gave the example of a plant worker who suffered serious injuries when he stepped on a slow-moving conveyer belt to cross to the other side and slipped into the machinery. In its investigation, USW learned that other workers performed the same action because they had duties on both sides of the belt and could not get there without walking 200 feet. They had asked for a walkway to be built over the conveyer, but the company had not installed one.

“If you make safety really hard, and you make danger really easy, then it’s just plain human nature that people are going to take the easy way,” he said.

Wright recommends that employers make the “safe way” the “easier way.” That can be achieved by making safety easier, such as building the requested walkway in the conveyer case, or making the dangerous way harder by, for example, constructing a barrier to prevent workers from climbing over the conveyer.

In a survey conducted by USW at multiple locations of the former National Steel Co., more than 60 percent of respondents admitted to performing work in an unsafe manner. When given several options as to why, the top reasons were “pressure from management” and “no other way to do the job,” according to Wright.

“And that’s pretty devastating,” he said. “The most benign explanation is that we haven’t been very good at communicating safe ways to do jobs, but the more likely explanation is that there’s a fault in the way those jobs were designed.”

Timothy C. Healey, director of safety at the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Insurance Co. in Hartford, CT, emphasized the role that safety culture plays in worker behavior.

As he put it, “How good is the employer at providing a workplace culture that supports an appropriate mix between safety, quality and efficiency?”

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