Busy workplaces are challenging environments in which we need to have our wits about us in order to maintain levels of safety. Andrew Sharman considers individual and organisational causes that influence behaviour at work


An average, fit, healthy and well-rested person can concentrate on a task for about 55 minutes in each hour. For an organisation with 20 000 employees, those zoned-out minutes represent a lot of hours lost each week – and it’s the main reason why telling people to take care at all times, or to be safe, simply can’t work. 

We need to get into the habit of tidying up poor housekeeping and working safely when people are bright and alert, so that when they’re zoned out, they remain safe. Sometimes, the only thing that can keep them safe is a good habit.


We have an exercise where we give two teams some anagrams to solve. One set of anagrams is difficult, but possible, to solve; the other one is impossible. The clock starts ticking.

The team with the difficult anagrams usually succeeds though the power of teamwork. The other team always fails. Then we repeat the exercise, but, this time, we give both teams anagrams that are difficult, though possible, to solve.

The first team succeeds again, but, usually, the second team gives up without really trying – it has learned to become helpless in less than 20 minutes. Imagine what that kind of response can do to an organisation over 30 years.

If you’re reading this and recognise yourself as part of the second group, then you may find that your workers usually don’t speak up. Instead, they have got into the habit of getting on as best they can. This learned helplessness could then apply to any of the following organisational causes:

• The design of the job;

• Influence of colleagues;

• Work deadlines and performance pressures;

• Leadership influence;

• Perceptions about the work environment.


Sometimes it’s not just one-off events that can’t be done safely. It’s a huge problem because of the way the job was set up from the start. Here are two examples:

Story # 1: If it smells bad…

We had a client who bought a waste-disposal company. A few weeks in, contracts were being reviewed with local governments, councils and the like. The new owners suddenly realised that they would not be able to carry out the work safely. Since they meant it when they said “if we can’t do this safely we aren’t doing it at all”, they promptly sold on the new company – excellent integrity, but not much use to workers at the company.

Story # 2 – If they build it…

Another of our clients is a major shipyard in the United Kingdom.  Commercially competitive, it is renowned for its impeccable quality. One day the CEO came out of a heavy-hitting session feeling more than a little aggrieved and announced: “We should never have agreed to build these ships this way.”

Our consultant replied: “Well maybe not – but then again someone was going to do so, and this area needs the work … so let’s talk about how we manage it from here.”


From around the time you start high school, the people that influence you most are not your parents, teachers, or even the so-called role models in the media, but your peers. This continues from your school days and into work, right up to the present day.

For example, imagine (or perhaps just remember) a detailed induction or training course for a new job, and then recall the first day out in a van or on site with the old hands. Do you imagine that often the two experiences barely overlapped at all?

The truth is that most people would rather cut a corner or two to fit in – even if there’s a health and safety risk – than suffer the humiliation of a group of old hands smirking at them.

The bad news is that this peer power is so strong we’re not going to embarrass ourselves by simply suggesting that people need to resist it … we’ll just say that, although the old hands might well have got used to certain level of risk and might be working in a macho “we laugh in the face of danger” culture, it doesn’t reduce the risk.


Everyone knows about the rude Nike rule – or JFDI as we’ve heard it referred to – and most of us are likely to have been on the receiving end of a similar message at some point in our lives. Usually though, problems are far more subtle than some big aggressive foreman demanding: “You stick your head in that furnace right now or you get your marching orders!”

There’s an expression that “you can have it quickly, you can have it cheaply; you can have it safely, you can have it top quality … pick any two”. This often applies to contracts we sign and tasks we set up. Something has to give and often it’s safety.


Many people have sat opposite a boss in the pub and watched him or her look at them all meaningfully 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! This person knows full well that they are history – because they know that the real meat of that sentence will follow. All of the words before are just waffle, flannel and filler.

Consider the following statements often made by managers:

“It’s vital to work safely, but it must be finished by Friday, or it’s vital that the job be finished by Friday, but you must work safely.” Do both these instructions mean the same thing? Why not?

Workers are hardwired to give leaders what they want – or, to be precise, to give them what they communicate to be what they really want. So how should workers respond?  Well, a calmly stated: “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?”

By passing the problem back to the leader, the worker creates a pause-for-thought moment which, in turn, brings real clarity and a change of instruction.


A person walks into a bar in a strange town and despite a sign that says: “A warm welcome guaranteed here!” – and no matter that no-one even looks at them as they walk in – how long does it take for them to figure out that they’re in the wrong bar?

Desperate for a cold beer they then walk into a really rough-looking place just down the road populated by guys twice as mean looking as Tyson and twice the size of The Rock – probably all ex-rugby players or former paratroopers. No one looks at them and they approach the bar and order a drink without issue. How long did it take for them to get the feeling that this bar was okay?

We reckon it’d be just a few seconds in both cases.

In this second pub, the person in question gets talking to one of the guys at the bar and begins a conversation about the big match coming up this weekend. Is he relaxed and animated? Does he have facts and opinions at his fingertips? Is he asking questions and probing you for your thoughts, or is he making an effort to sound interested and labouring a bit? (Since he doesn’t really care too much about football – he’s a rugby man really – if he’s asked who he thinks will win the upcoming Sharks versus Bulls match there would be a dramatic change!)

Studies show that more than 80 percent of communication is in the tone of voice and body language. At work, as everywhere else, everyone knows what really interests people.

We started this section by talking about some of the challenges of communicating safety, so let’s wind things up with reviewing some other ways that the safety message can become easily diluted:

• Safety is always the first item on meeting agendas but it is covered in a way that communicates: “Let’s get this out the way so we can get on to the important stuff.”

• Managers walk straight past workers who are cutting corners, and turn a blind eye if they even notice it;

• Managers cut corners themselves and don’t lead by example;

• Managers that say: “Okay, just this once but then after that, be careful.”


Any number of inspirational films – we’re thinking of Silkwood; Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom; Pride; 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, but the good news is we can make a huge difference in our own way.

Sometimes standing up and saying something might result in a glare, but unless workers are able to raise safety concerns in a real and positive way, there isn’t a hope to reach higher levels of safety culture.

We are all interconnected whether we like it or not. Everything we do (or don’t do) and everything we say (or don’t say) contributes to the safety culture around us.

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

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 www.RMSswitzerland.com. 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: team@RMSswitzerland.com 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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