In safety, we have long debated why workers take risks that lead to injuries and death.
There are many reasons that we have discovered through research and interviews, but none of them are valid, meaning they don’t make sense.
In life, we spend most of our time working or thinking about work. We should cherish the time that we have with family, on vacation and doing the things that we love to do. In safety, we know that taking risks at work can jeopardize all these things.
Over the Independence Day weekend, we were watching the news. The top story that day was that two workers were caught in a trench collapse and trapped. This accident happened to be in the neighborhood I grew up in which hit me even more personally. As I listened to the details I wondered why. The workers were down in a 15-foot excavation on a residential property, installing a sewer line in Class C soil. My assumptions started going crazy as to why, but nothing made any sense to me. These workers should have been spending the holiday with their families but decided to work and took risks that resulted in both dying. In fact, it took several days to recover the bodies as the soil was too unstable to get them out.
In reflection, why did these workers take this risk and why do workers take risks in general? My opinion is based on 30 years of safety industry experience and a detailed study of human psychology.
If you have been in safety for any length of time, you have likely heard a worker say that it won’t happen to me. This is a common belief that is reinforced daily when workers take risks and do not get hurt. When a worker first starts out, the hazards are apparent and real, but over time the worker gets used to their surroundings and the hazards present and as they get used to them, they grow comfortable and desensitized. Over time, they may grow an invincibility complex. The cycle continues as they continue to take risks without repercussion. This is one of the main reasons that risks are taken.
In addition, new workers are sometimes pushed by leadership or their coworkers to move faster and not worry about the hazards. This encouragement can mold and shape them in a negative manner, further leading to this invincibility complex.
There are many other reasons that we have identified, but the examples above make the most sense to me. The fact is, it will not happen until it does. When an accident occurs, the worker faces their fate, and many times ends up on the news.
As safety professionals, it is our job to continue to identify this belief system and challenge it. I know that I am sick and tired of hearing about on-the-job accidents and fatalities and would do anything to stop them.