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“If you see something, say something.” That’s the message of a Department of Homeland Security’s public awareness campaign encouraging people to report suspicious behavior, and it could very well be the motto of workplace safety programs.
Yet even with all of the rhetoric about speaking up, workers may see something and say nothing. In a study in the Journal of Safety Research, study co-authors Sean Tucker and Nick Turner found that factors such as feeling powerless may prevent young workers from telling their supervisor about safety concerns.
The study delves into the concept of voice, which Tucker of the University of Regina in Saskatchewan defined broadly as trying to change something in the workplace. In the context of safety, that could mean making suggestions to a supervisor, refusing to perform dangerous work or calling a safety inspector to report a problem.
Despite awareness campaigns in Canada urging young people to be proactive about safety, the teens in Tucker’s focus groups said they would take a “wait-and-see” approach, as in wait and see if other workers notice the hazard or if the situation will be resolved on its own.
Their reasons for waiting – fear of being fired or losing work hours, supervisor indifference, and a sense of powerlessness – are also an issue for immigrant workers, a population that, similar to young people, is at higher risk for injury.
In this case, young people said they had less influence in the workplace because of their youth and inexperience. As Tucker put it, they think, “If I do speak up, how instrumental will my voice be?”
However, their responses indicated they wouldn’t remain completely silent; rather, they would selectively speak up to other workers and, if a consensus about the hazard was reached, approach the supervisor together.
When participants were asked what would happen if they didn’t have co-worker support, one participant said, “You’d be alone and nothing would be done.”
Another added, “Safety in numbers.”
That sentiment is understandable but also a cause for concern. During the time that a worker is polling his or her co-workers to gain support for reporting the hazard, someone could get hurt because the situation wasn’t fixed.
One part of the solution lies with supervisors. Tucker said the best action is to show you genuinely care. Supervisors can tell workers, “I want to know about problems so we can deal with them before somebody gets hurt in the workplace.”
“That’s something that sends a powerful message to new employees and existing employees,” Tucker said. “A supervisor that’s able to back up that strong statement with actions will have the desired effect. They will get people speaking up about concerns, and that’s a good thing in the workplace.”
Fostering that type of environment should help people move past the “safety in numbers” attitude. Truly empowered workers exercise their voice, even if they have to speak alone.
The opinions expressed in "Research Spotlight" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.