The previous piece* dove into various reasons why people behave unsafely, from both an individual and organisational perspective. This follow-up feature will focus on some other ways that the safety message can easily become diluted.

Have you ever been sitting opposite a partner in the pub and watched them look at you meaningfully, only to hear the words: “You’re a really nice person, and I really like you, but …”? Do they need to finish the sentence? Of course not!

You know full well that you’re history – because you know that the real meat of that sentence follows the “but” andall of the words before it are just waffle, flannel, and filler.

Consider the following statements you may have heard your manager say: “It’s vital that you work safely, but it must be finished by Friday,” or, “It’s vital you finish by Friday, but you must work safely”.

Do both instructions mean the same thing to you? Why not? We are hard-wired to give our leaders what they want. Or to be precise, to give them what they communicate they really want.

Of course we are – we have families to feed or “big nights out” to fund. But, if it all goes belly up, you’ll be the onein hospital and they’ll be on the stand in court swearing (truthfully): “I did say ‘safely’ … I very explicitly said ‘safely’.”

Look, we get that this is a tricky situation, but you can certainly try saying: “Boss, I’m really not sure I can do both and I’m not sure what you want me to do if that’s the case. Are you saying that it has to be finished by Friday, even if it means cutting a few corners?”

This achieves two things. A far more difficult court stand experience (if nothing else) but, hopefully, better than that, by passing the problem back to them you create a “pause for thought” moment and – usually – real clarity on the work instruction.

Do not be embarrassed to do this. This is only standing up for yourself. You’ve just been handed a safety problem to deal with.

Many oil companies have now stopped asking installation managers: “Why did you switch off production?” Instead, they ask: “Why did you think it safe to switch back on?” The second question asks: “What happened? Is it under control?” The first question, however, implies: “You’d better have a good reason for that.”

These communications inevitably come from some head office lemon sitting under a banner saying: “Safety is our number one priority,” don’t they?

So, challenge them on it! Every time you find yourself thinking: “Hang on, I know what you mean by that …” say something. Sometimes it’ll get you a glare and your name in a black book for a few weeks, but more often than not someone from head office would be truly mortified to know staff are being put in that position. And, you know what? Many managers who can’t pass on a problem will instead pass it back up. And that’s good enough for you, too.

Our advice is always the same. If you spot these blatant BS merchants, challenge them. Stay calm, keep it rational, ask for clarification and suggest possible solutions whenever possible. If you get a look that says: “One more word from you …” (and you know there is genuinely no way around this) then, maybe, you might want to reconsider how and where you want to spend the next part of your life.

We started this section (in the previous issue) by talking about some of the challenges of communicating safety. Here are a few other ways that the safety message can easily become diluted: 

  • Safety is always the first item on the meeting agenda, but is covered in a way that says: “Let’s get this out of the way so we can get onto the important stuff.”
  • Managers walk straight past workers cutting corners, and turn a blind eye (if they even notice it).
  • Managers cut corners themselves, failing to lead by example.
  • Managers say: “Okay, just this once, but after that be careful.”

So, why do we act unsafely? Because we are “told” it’s okay. And because we are “told” it’s expected. Well, it isn’t okay. It’s risky. Challenge it or leave; you have the choice. You can do it. We should also say that it doesn’t have to be this way. Things can change.

In the old days in oil and gas, you weren’t a “real” rigger if you still had all your fingers. And permit-to-work systems were usually a paper-shuffling affair for softies.

Then the Piper Alpha disaster happened; society cried out and the media had a field day. Safety cases were introduced. A step change in safety was announced and everything changed for the good.

Offshore still isn’t perfect, but the safety culture has been totally transformed – and it shows. For example, if we’re working in a city with the board of a multinational corporation, and they appear lukewarm about safety – except for one director who “really gets it”, we’ll bet you a pound to your penny that this one individual has an oil and gas background.

But this doesn’t help the 167 people killed in the explosion back in 1988, and none of the riggers ever got their missing digits back. So, how do we look forward? What can you do today? “Please be exceptional” isn’t the smartest of requests … but “Please take a deep breath and give it a proper go” is reasonable, don’t you think? You’ll likely want some inspiration, so let’s dig in …

The experiment that followed a murder

Any number of inspirational films (we’re thinking of Silkwood, Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom, Pride, and High Noon) have made the point that one brave and determined person can make all the difference.

We can’t all be as wise and brave as Mandela or as perfectly good as James Stewart’s character George Baileyin the 1946 movie smash It’s a Wonderful Life, but the good news is that we can make a huge difference anyway. With that in mind, we hope that the powerful results of the experiments that followed the senseless murder of a young American woman in 1964 will inspire you as they do us.

Staring death in the face

Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was a 28-year-old barmaid who was attacked on her way home from work, right outside her apartment, in the borough of Queens, New York City, in the early hours of March 13, 1964. 

The perpetrator was Winston Moseley – a sick-minded, violent individual who left her for dead. Many people heard the attack: the lights in neighbours’ homes were switched on and windows were opened. Moseley noticed and ran off into the night.

But he returned a short while later to have a look around (as many of these psychopaths seem to do). Instead of finding a police crime scene, he found Kitty right where he’d left her – but, surprisingly, still alive. No one had called the police. Everyone had thought someone else would. So, this time Moseley did kill her.

When the story made the papers there was outrage and disgust – as you can imagine. Many people reported having personally witnessed Kitty either being attacked or lying in the street suffering, close to death.**

That same year, 636 murders occurred in New York, but this one made the headlines in a way that none of the others did. Looking back now, the “crime that changed America” did so because it inspired and catalysed research into what has become known as the “Bystander Effect”.

Following Kitty’s murder – and the national furore that it must surely be impossible for people to do nothing when they see something unusual – a classic experiment was created to prove the potency of the Bystander Effect.

A group of people were split into two lines of almost equal length. All participants were actors – except for one person. In turn, each participant was asked whether the lines of people were of the same length. Each of the actors one by one declared that they were. Then it came to the stooge – the only person in the room who wasn’t in on it.

What researchers found was that 90% of the stooges denied the evidence right in front of their own eyes – that one line was clearly longer than the other – and agreed with the room full of liars.

Some of you reading this might be thinking: “Ah yeah, but the murder of Kitty Genovese was back in the 1960s. Things have moved on, and it’d never happen like that nowadays.”

 Well, think again. In an uncannily similar tale, on April 13, 2010, Hugo Tale-Yax was stabbed to death just several blocks from where Kitty Genovese died.

Tale-Yax lay bleeding to death on the sidewalk in Queens, New York, for more than one hour before emergency services arrived. During this time, 24 people walked past him, several stopped and stared, and some even took photographs. None of them called for help or provided any assistance.

So, what’s occurring? It seems that just like the line experiment we described earlier, people quite literally don’t want to be the only one to stand out from the crowd – even in emergencies.

But let’s return to those experiments. In a follow up trial, when just one person was allowed to break ranks and declare the inconsistency in line length, then everything changed. This time around 90% of the stooges said something like: “I don’t know what’s wrong with the rest of you, but I agree with them … clearly line X is longer than line Y.”

The results of these experiments reinforce the findings following the deaths of Genovese and Tale-Yax, and show that, intrinsically, we will deny solid evidence right in front of our own eyes because of the actions of other people around us. However, they also show that we just need one supporting piece of evidence – or a nudge in the right direction – and our view can swing dramatically, potentially changing everything.

The truth about behaviour

We are all interconnected, whether we like it or not. Everything we do (or don’t do), everything we say (or don’t say) contributes to the safety culture around us – at work, at home, everywhere.

Be Safety Savvy

Every time you pass up the chance to say something, it matters. When you take a deep breath, stop and do say something, it can matter even more. Whoever you are, wherever you are, how you behave always makes a difference.

* This series consists of edited extracts from Professor Andrew Sharman’s and Dr Tim Marsh’s book Safety Savvy. The third chapter has been split into two parts. The second piece is included in this issue.

** The original newspaper report has since been shown to have major inaccuracies, including an inflated number of witnesses. Some witnesses had, in fact, even tried to call the police. In 2016, the Times called its own reporting “flawed”. Despite these inaccuracies, what sadly happened to Kitty still delivers a salient message.

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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