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Why staff are afraid to speak up about safety

If you want to move towards a safety culture where people do the right things for the right reasons, they must feel involved in the process of learning from events both good and bad. Without this, people fail to understand that there are life-changing consequences to choices made in the workplace which affect everyone. Encouraging this realisation by raising awareness and personal experience is what changes attitudes, and helps people follow the required behaviours without the need for strong enforcement.

Sounds easy enough doesn’t it?

Many companies think they’ve cracked it by putting a near miss reporting process in place and regular team briefing sessions: job done. And while this might help get things started, all too often the SMT and safety guys soon come to me and say:

“We’ve made all these changes but no one really contributes when we ask them for feedback. How can we do it differently? They just sit there quietly, and we end up making the suggestions – then they nod and all go back to work and do the same old things.”

What follows is an increase in unsafe conditions being reported but little self-report of any near misses, and certainly no unsafe behaviour unless there’s a running feud with another shift and even then it’s more about politics than safety.

Why are people so reluctant to join in?

It’s often fear of how they’ll be seen by their peers and the SMT/LMs they have to work with. Generally we’re all very careful about how we act around others to ensure we give the right impression, so suggesting a solution to a safety issue may not be conducive to maintaining our reputation of not giving a t*ss about this ‘health and safety rubbish’.

People might make suggestions about things the company should deal with, like a new roof or equipment, but never really talk about how things are organised and ran. Longer term safety issues come from performance targets and pressure to cut corners; this is what really puts people at risk of being hurt but they rarely open up to talk about them for fear of reprisals on all sides.
Fingers pointing at one another
It’s usually only when something happens that people accept discussion and learning as necessary, but again they often feel very defensive about the process and they think questions are there to trip them up. Even months after an accident people can still feel like you’re having a dig at the way they acted or the decisions they made, even though you’re simply making sure things are safer for them.

Difficult questions

It’s hard to ask someone questions about sensitive issues in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re judging them. The ‘five whys’ is a commonly used process, but that often leaves people feeling like they’ve gone through an interrogation. Anyone running such an interview has to know how to carefully phrase questions in an open and non-judgemental way for it not to create ill feeling.

Remember, it’s a very different situation acting in the moment than with the benefit of hindsight, and unless someone is obviously breaking rules, they’re well aware that their behaviour should not be evaluated, but accepted as done in good faith. More training should be considered a good thing by all, not just a lesser punishment than an official warning.

I once interviewed some project managers in a road widening program who’d been told that they had to have a monthly review meeting that involved lessons learned from safety incidents – something their SMT proudly told me they’d introduced. These grown men quaked in their boots and tried to avoid attending because it felt like they were being summoned for judgement. One of them wittily observed: “There’s a fine line between sharing and blaming. I share like they say and they blame me for it”.

So what’s needed for discussion, sharing and learning to really work?

  • Empathy for the other persons perspective
  • Trust that feedback from opening up will be used in a positive way (not as a weapon)
  • Respect on all sides

You must remember that engaging in discussion is a hard thing for some people to do, and their opinion should be valued. Yet when contributions are recognised, and suggestions acted upon, it gradually encourages yet more honest feedback and involvement – which is your route to mature safety culture and lasting behavioural change.

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