Should workers do the right thing – or be the right people?

by on February 19, 2013 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

A worker sees a safety device out of place and places it back on. A safety consultant sees it and asks the workers why. Someone might get hurt, the worker replies.

He’s a good safety citizen.

In trying to motivate employees to work safely – or to motivate anyone to “do the right thing” – you have three choices:

  • Results or consequences. In ethical studies, this is known as utilitarianism. (It’s from John Stuart Mill.) You do the right thing because it results in the happiest possible state for all concerned. If the job gets done and the workers go home safely, everyone’s happy.

    Issues: Every safety pro and front-line supervisor needs to focus on results. But if results are emphasized too much, or are the sole criterion of success, you can end up with bad habits, shortcuts, and even small sacrifices.

    The last case – sacrifices – is the reason OSHA doesn’t like incentive programs that focus on results. A worker with a cut sacrifices reporting that for the happiness of the team (i.e., the reward) and thus you don’t get the near-miss reporting or accurate sense of what’s going on.

  • Rule- or compliance-based. In ethical studies, this is a “universal ethic.” (It’s from Immanuel Kant.) The rules are correct, and so if we all follow them, whether the general rule or the exception, we’ll be doing the right thing. That’s why safety pros focus on following safe procedures. It works well.

    Issues: (1) While we all like to “do the right thing,” it’s difficult to come up with a complete set of rules. Supervisors and workers will have to use judgment at some point. And teaching judgment isn’t an easy thing. (2) Compliance doesn’t really trickle down into people’s hearts. It seems that rule following is great, but we all want more.

  • Virtue based, or good safety citizenship. In ethical studies, this is virtue ethics. (It’s from Aristotle.) Virtue ethics thinks in terms of this question: What would a virtuous person do in this situation? In safety, that means safety training has gotten into workers’ heart, because workers ask themselves in their day-to-day jobs: What would a good safety citizen do?

    The point then isn’t, “What is the right thing to do?” It’s, “Who is the right person to be?”

Let’s take a look at an example. Debris is piling up behind an employee’s machine and some falls into a pathway where others could trip. It happens when the worker fails to stop periodically and clear away the debris. The worker on that machine is struggling to keep up.

A results-orientation – a supervisor kicks the debris out of a path so no one would trip. A compliance-based one – a supervisor reminds the worker to stop at the required interval to clean his workstation. But a virtue-based one – the supervisor looks at how the worker is performing the job to see if additional training is needed, if the person needs some efficiency teaching, or if the worker will speed up in time, and thus needs a lighter workload until then.

Ask the questions
The point is that a “good safety citizen” will look at whatever needs to be done to heighten safety while maintaining productivity. So they report safety problems when they spot them and don’t say, “Not my job, the supervisor will catch it during the next round.” And they won’t cross their fingers and say, “Whew! Well, no one got hurt, so all’s well that ends well.”

Because in the latter two cases, that’s not being a good safety citizen.

One way to create “citizenship”: Ask the questions during training. Have supervisors follow up. Workers should get used to supervisors asking:

  • What are the results we want?
  • What are the rules we must comply with?
  • What would a top safety performer who cares about all members of the crew do?

The more they ask themselves the question about who their actions say they are, the more workers will identify with a being a good safety citizen.

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