ASSE: Safe and Sorry?

We've all heard the maxims “better safe than sorry” and “you never can have too much of a good thing.” But psychologist Zara Hart has found that it's not always better to be safe and that there is such a thing as too much safety.

Hart, who works as a corporate psychologist for the nonprofit Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention (IFAP) in Australia, has collected quantitative and qualitative data – through surveys, focus groups and candid one-on-one interviews with workers – on organizational safety cultures. Recently, Hart said, she has observed corporate cultures that challenge the basic assumption that more safety always engenders ... well, more safety.

Hart, speaking at the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) 2007 Professional Development Conference in Orlando, Fla., told attendees that she believes that excessive safety could be a growing problem.

“The concern is that more and more and more might not be adding more,” Hart told OccupationalHazards.com after her June 25 presentation. “It might actually be detracting.”

According to Hart, it is possible for organizations to reach a point of “safety saturation,” which she defines as “the point in the development of a safety culture [in which] the addition of more safety initiatives will not improve safety outcomes.”

Safety saturation, Hart said, can lead to excessive safety, “which represents a waste of time and resources and has a negative effect on culture.” The potential negative effects of excessive safety, ironically, include more accidents and injuries.

“Incredibly ironic,” Hart commented.

Symptoms of Excessive Safety

Hart hypothesized that too much safety in the workplace can manifest itself in several ways, including role overload, role conflict and cognitive failure.

According to Hart:

  • Role overload is when a worker simply has too much to do in the time available. This can refer to a worker's job tasks as well as the safety requirements of his or her job. (Some safety procedures, for example, come with onerous paperwork requirements.)
  • Role conflict occurs when the need to accomplish one task – such as being productive – clashes with the need to follow safety procedures. Sometimes, workers are faced with choosing between safety and saving time or choosing between safety and saving effort. In those cases, safety sometimes gets compromised.
  • Cognitive failure occurs when workers are so overloaded with their job requirements and safety requirements that they make mistakes that can cause them to get hurt. Signs of cognitive failure include an inability to fully focus on work activities; a tendency to be easily distracted by co-workers; and daydreaming when you should be listening to someone.

Hart noted that there is research that suggests that such psychological stresses “have direct relationships to accidents.”

To express the impact of excessive safety from the employee's perspective, Hart shared several quotes from employees of a large, multinational corporation with an ailing safety culture. These employees said:

  • “We are developing a culture where we spend our time thinking about the safety system and devising ways of 'how to get around this.' The safety processes involved in doing a simple job can be overcomplicated. This detracts from safety. A job can be 50 to 70 percent paperwork. If they want to make a job safe, they should make the paperwork easier to do.”
  • “It can take 6 hours to do paperwork and 8 minutes to do the job. Some jobs get put aside purely because the paperwork is too cumbersome. It is like we are reinventing the wheel.”
  • “Sometimes safety procedures take away your good decision making and reduce awareness. Rather than look at hazards, you read the procedure. It takes away common sense.”
  • “I feel restricted in my human ability to work safely. I am a mature person with a lifetime of experience and my confidence is undermined by the psychological pressure of the safety requirements.”
  • “It impairs judgment and generates high levels of frustration. How is a person to consider all these things whilst trying to do a simple job? Too many things to think of.”
  • “When safety managers come, some jobs don’t get done. We either wait till they are asleep or go home.”

“If you are an employee in a safety-focused organization, working in a caring environment that protects and improves your safety can positively influence your well-being,” Hart said. “On the other hand, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. When safety moves from influencing to eclipsing all important activities in your working life, you will start to feel in need of respite from the very things that were designed to protect you.”

Safety Initiatives vs. Safety Interventions

In an interview with OccupationalHazards.com, Hart emphasized that she is not “advocating against safety.” Instead, Hart urged safety professionals to consider that the antidote to excessive safety is implementing “the right kind of safety intervention.”

According to Hart, safety interventions are preferable to safety initiatives.

Hart loosely defined a safety initiative as “a great idea that we have for safety.”

“This conference is full of them,” she said. “There will be hundreds and hundreds that we all have before we leave.”

An intervention, on the other hand, is a more scientific approach that follows a “measure-intervene-measure” cycle. First, the organization's specific safety needs are assessed through measurement. Next, the employer intervenes to meet those needs. And finally, more measurement is conducted to determine how effective the intervention is in meeting the identified needs and to determine the psychological impact that the intervention is having on workers.

“You measure, you intervene and then you measure and then you find out in that process – it's a basic scientific inquiry process – that indeed what you put in place did have an effect,” Hart told OccupationalHazards.com. “So it's ... like an experimental design, but for safety and without the negative elements attached to experimentation, of course.”

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