Why don’t people report others’ safety violations?

by on June 23, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Your eyes and ears can’t be everywhere. That’s why you depend on supervisors to enforce safety rules.

But what if workers don’t get the right safety message from their supervisor? Will they press a critical safety issue before it’s to late, by taking it to you – or further up the chain?

Almost certainly not, says Dr. C. Fred Alford, an expert on whistle-blowing and author of Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power.

Real-life example
One supervisor didn’t take into account inclement weather – rain, snow and ice. He told his workers to get on roofs in some cases; in others, he told them that the fall protection was left at the shop, so just “be careful” until tomorrow. Every worker but one complied.

The exception who spoke up said he wasn’t going to do it, but after an argument, still climbed on a wet roof without fall protection. He didn’t report the problem up the chain of command. What’s more, he did the same thing – complain, argue and comply – the next few times it rained.

Key point: Luckily no one fell in this example, but there are supervisors whose mentality is “just get ‘er done,” and you’ll be hard pressed to spot them until something goes drastically wrong.

3 reasons for unreported safety violations
In the above example, the “partial whistleblower” eventually quit. The company still didn’t know about the safety problems.

Why do people, such as the crew mentioned, just go along without speaking up? According to Alford, some reasons include:

  • Conformity: “We think of ourselves in the U.S. as individuals, but we grossly underestimate how conformist we are, how deferential to authority,” says Alford. The default position of most people in a workplace is “go along.”
  • Fear of being labeled a troublemaker by both management and their colleagues. It’s colleagues turning on them that’s the real shocker, according to Alford. Other people around the whistleblower naturally resist the unpleasant implication that they should have spoken up, too.The thinking goes like this: “If someone is non-compliant with the rules, what does is it say about me when I just went along with it and didn’t speak up?”
  • They told their supervisor, and it was so stressful they accepted a vague reply: “If a boss says thanks for that info, we’ll do something about it,” says Alford, “then there’s no whistleblowing. The complaint disappears into the ether.” That’s usually true whether or not the supervisor actually does anything about it. For most people, informing the boss is as far as they’ll go. And if they get resistance, they will often go along, anyway.

What this means to safety directors
Bottom line: You or your safety team will most likely have to spot the warning signs of supervisory non-compliance yourselves. Workers and other supervisors are unlikely to speak up.

Some options:

    1. Look for higher comparative turnover on a particular crew. And look at the previous experience of those who have quit. Nowadays there are plenty of good people to recruit, and it’s difficult for many to find another job. If people are quitting, particularly good ones, that’s a big red flag that a supervisor isn’t enforcing safety rules – and may be flouting them openly. It could warrant a surprise inspection, particularly on high-hazard days (such as rainy weather for outdoor work) or during high-hazard work, such as a mold change that requires a lockout.


    1. Offer anonymous complaint options, but don’t rely too heavily on anonymous complaints. Anonymous complaints are less threatening than speaking up in person. But people still may not use them.

      One problem: People may have complained to the “bad” supervisor before. If the same complaint gets filed, even anonymously, the person may fear being identified and retaliated against. Still, anonymous complaint systems are useful and do offer somewhat of a workaround. Best use: During safety training sessions, ask workers to describe their work processes – how they handle bad weather, for example. Often you can spot problems during that feedback, which is less threatening to the worker than dropping a dime on their boss.


    1. During training sessions of established crews, look for little feedback, no feedback, little safety discipline, eyes rolling during safety sessions, and other signs that “how things work” isn’t what you’re training.


    1. If you suspect something isn’t right, sit in on pre-shift toolbox talks. Whatever your training sessions cover, it’s a good idea to sit in from time to time and see how the sessions go. Look for similar reactions as in Item 3, but also look to see if the supervisor seems to be familiar with giving talks. If he seems more than usually uncomfortable (e.g., can’t find his papers, or doesn’t seem to have the materials handy), you may have to investigate further.


  1. Look at the state of required PPE. Fall protection that never makes it out of the truck is usually in better shape than equipment that’s been used as frequently as required.

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