A few weeks ago I was training some leaders at a manufacturing site when one of the safety managers said something interesting. She stated, “What worries me the most is the safety ‘cringe factors’ we have in the plant.” When I asked her to elaborate more on this she explained that, in her opinion, safety cringe factors are, “All of the existing hazards or risks that keep you up at night – you know they are out there, but they’re not always easy to see or eliminate.”
She brought up a good point – there will always be some safety issues that are hard to pinpoint or hard to resolve, but at any given point they could lead to someone getting hurt. As a safety professional, what are the cringe factors that keep you up at night the most? What are the risks, hazards, or potential situations out there on the floor, or in the field, that can easily go “under the radar” and then catch people by surprise?
Anything could potentially be a cringe factor, depending on the industry, job, equipment, or situation. But if we group these into high-level categories, one can break these down into some universal categories. Based on our experience working with companies across several industries and talking with safety professionals across North America, safety cringe factors typically fall into one of these five broad categories:
1) What employees do when no one is watching
We all want to trust our employees to work safely 100% of the time when they are unsupervised, but the reality is, on any given day there will always be a few individuals who, for various reasons, take shortcuts and unnecessary risks in order to get the job done. Throw in time pressure, production demands, and a person with a high-risk SafetyDNA profile, and what do you think that person is likely to do when the supervisor is not around?
2) Unsafe working conditions or equipment that have not been addressed
Improper machine guarding, mislabeled electrical equipment, worn out fall protection equipment…we could go on forever about all the potential hazards that may currently exist in our work environments today. It’s impossible to remove every hazard, keep all equipment maintained 100% of the time, and engineer the risk out of every job. But in my experience, it’s amazing how many times I talk to employees and leaders who are well aware of hazardous conditions and equipment but are willing to live with the risks because there’s not enough time, money or support to correct the issue. It’s often an injury waiting to happen but we don’t see the real urgency until it’s sadly too late.
3) New hires lacking enough training or hands-on experience on the job
This is a big one for so many companies. As more and more of our experienced workforce retires, there are increasing gaps in knowledge, skill, and experience, and these gaps result in higher risk for newer employees. When you couple this with the challenges of providing sufficient training every year, it is easy to understand why so many employers are concerned about having people who know the safety policies and understand how to work safely.
4) Supervisors allowing (or encouraging) unsafe work practices
It’s no surprise why Safety Leadership is such a hot topic these days – it’s really important because it directly impacts workplace safety. We know that safety culture predicts safety behavior, but the culture is largely shaped by the leaders. Furthermore, the latest psychological research in safety shows a clear link between supervisor traits (e.g., their personal SafetyDNA profiles and their leadership style) and the injury rates on the teams that they lead. In other words, how a leader supervises their team is a strong predictor of how safe their direct reports will be. When your supervisors don’t hold employees accountable for safety or lack basic leadership skills, it’s hard to build a sustainable culture of safety.
5) Employees slowly deviating from established processes and procedures
Typically, you don’t wake up one day and suddenly have people violating safety procedures and taking big risks overnight. It’s much more subtle than that. It starts with a small shortcut here, and a simple deviation there, and then builds quietly over time. When no one steps in to say anything or to correct unsafe behaviors, employees can collectively drift into a state of complacency, risk acceptance, or deviation from established processes.
Do any of these cringe factors apply to your workplace? Which one worries you the most? The bigger question is probably this: when we become aware of these types of cringe factors, do we address them with the urgency they require? If the answer is “no,” why is that the case? The reasons I hear most often for not acting are:
Not enough money
Not enough time
Not enough resources or support
Risk level is not high enough
Senior management is not committed enough
There will always be some risks and hazards that have to be addressed, but when these are deemed to place our employees at high levels of risk, we must act regardless of our level within the organization. Whether it’s bringing attention to the issue, giving coaching and feedback, talking openly about our concerns, or holding people accountable for their unsafe behavior, there is always something we can do to remove the “cringe factor” that could harm or kill an employee and impact their family for the rest of their lives. We always have to choose to say something and act, even if it will take some time and help in order to improve safety in the workplace.