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Crucial Influence

Overcoming Resistance to Safety Standards

David Maxfield 

David Maxfield is coauthor of two bestselling books, Change Anything and Influencer.


InfluencerQ Dear Crucial Skills,

I am trying to encourage employees to work safely, but often meet with resistance and feel like people only behave when the safety guys are around. How can I create long-term change and encourage employees to take responsibility for creating a safe work environment?

Seeking Workplace Safety

A Dear Safety,

Thanks for asking this important question. At first, it seems strange that people would resist following safe work practices. After all, none of us wants to be injured at work. Yet the problem you describe is very common—in part because many of us already feel safe at work.

Our workplaces are far safer than they used to be. In the U.S., time lost due to injuries has dropped by more than 50 percent since 1991. This means many of the most obvious sources of danger have been addressed and resolved. Now we are focusing on less obvious dangers and more stubborn behaviors.

Another complication is that many of the most dangerous behaviors are ones we are guilty of in our personal lives as well as at work. We accept the risks at home and we think we should be able to take the same risks at work. For example, many of the most fatal workplace accidents involve bad driving behaviors—we fail to buckle up, we speed, we drive carelessly, and we back into things. Another huge source of injuries involves bad ladder behaviors—we fail to use a ladder when we should, we don’t tie off our ladder, or we carry tools in our hands as we climb the ladder. How many of us ignore these risks when we’re not at work? So, it’s a challenge to get us to take these risks seriously when we’re on the job.

I’ll use our Influencer model to suggest a few steps you can take to create a safer working environment.

1. Focus on a few crucial moments. My guess is that most of your people follow most of the safety practices most of the time. This means your safety problem boils down to a few perfect storms—crucial moments when some of your people fail to follow some of the safety practices. Get your team involved by having them identify the handful of crucial moments that are most dangerous in their work environment. Our research study Silent Danger identified five crucial moments that we often use to justify skipping safety practices:

  • Get It Done. Justifying unsafe practices due to tight timelines.
  • Undiscussable Incompetence. Unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that people don’t feel able to discuss.
  • Just this Once. Justifying unsafe practices as exceptions to the rule.
  • This Is Overboard. Justifying unsafe practices because the precautions seem excessive.
  • Are You a Team Player? Unsafe practices that people justify by saying they are for the good of the team, company, or customer.

2. Identify the vital behaviors in these crucial moments. The vital behaviors are the few actions that will keep people safe during the crucial moments they’ve identified. For example, suppose one of the crucial moments your team has identified is, “When it’s our fault that we’re behind schedule, we do whatever it takes to make up our lost time. And a typical shortcut is failing to use ladders when we should.”

The vital behaviors are: a.) Watch out for this crucial moment and warn others when you think you are at risk; b.) Be especially careful to avoid dangerous and tempting shortcuts when you’re in this crucial moment; and c.) Confront those you see taking a dangerous shortcut.

3. Build personal motivation. Your question revealed that people aren’t taking personal responsibility for their safety behaviors. They know what they should do but they aren’t doing it. This sounds like a motivation problem.

The typical mistake we make in motivating is to rely on verbal persuasion: data dumps, lectures, sermons, and rants. These are the least effective ways to motivate people.

The most effective way is personal experience. For example, we found that nurses who suffered a hospital-acquired infection were much more likely to remind their peers to wash their hands. Their experience turned hand hygiene into a moral passion.

But people don’t need to be injured to become motivated. Personal experience isn’t required. Our nurses were just as motivated if they’d had a family member or close friend who suffered an infection. Vicarious experience can be just as powerful.

Below is a link to a video we’ve used on off-shore oil rigs to remind people that accidents still happen and have life-changing consequences. We use it to start a conversation. Our goal is to have people share their own experiences and reconnect to the reasons they need to keep safe and watch each others’ backs.


You might also like to watch and share this compelling video about workplace safety.


4. Build Social Motivation. Another of your concerns is that people see you as the enforcer. There should be social motivation, but reminders should come from their peers as well as supervisors.

Often, it is important to involve senior managers and leaders and show them what they can do during crucial moments. For example, during a crisis when everybody is rushing and tempted to take shortcuts, it is very helpful for the manager who is over the entire crisis to remind people that they still need to take every safety precaution. These timely warnings from senior leaders counter the cynical expectations many employees have about their organization’s commitment to safety.

Obviously, these are just a few ideas to add to the mix. You’ll want to consider actions in each of the six sources of influence. Remember, leaders who combine four or more of these sources are ten times more successful at achieving their desired results.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

3 thoughts on “Overcoming Resistance to Safety Standards”

  1. Craig Gauvreau

    I am a safety coordinator on a large oil & gas construction project. I have been using the influencer to refine my skills in making change. Over the past few years I have experienced excellent levels of success with this and the model begins to take a life of its own. Here is an example of how I started with making the undesiable desirable, which also lead to peer pressure. It was at a very personal level to the worker.

    We had experienced 5 different tragic single vehicle accidents in one year where the men were ejected from their vehcles driving either to or from the work sites or on their days off. That’s 5 avoidable fatalities, all married with children.

    I arrived on one of the sites to discover that the crew truck had all of the seat belts connected so that they could travel without listening to the alarm as they road in the vehicle to camp or town from the work site. In our safety meeting I reviewed the information from the police about seat belts as well as our situation about the 5 fatalities.
    We talked about how the families had to move on without a dad or husband.
    I mentioned that no one would be in trouble regarding the crew truck, but, discussed the fact that we had lost 5 men that were ejected from the vehicles and died as a result. (This was winter in Northern Alberta Canada where road conditions are not great.) So they have a great chance of dying if the vehcile goes off the road. But if they were okay with someone else raising their kids and sleeping with their wife, then carry on not using the seat bealts while traveling in the winter on icy roads. There were 14 people in the meeting and you could have heard a pin drop.

    I wasn’t sure if they were angry with me for looking at the situation that way until 3 of them said “thanks” and that they never considered their behavior in that way and that they would be using the seat belts.
    This appearently became the consensus at that work site and there was soon a zero tolerence at the worker level.

    We have been using this very personal approach where I currently work.
    The model works excellent. We have a very positive safety program and the men look out for each other. It takes effort but it works.

    Good Luck

  2. David Maxfield

    Craig, What a wonderful example! You’ll never know if your conversation that day–along with others–save someone’s life, but you know you’re doing the right thing.

    The personal approach is so powerful, especially when people have drifted into complying for the wrong reasons–rules, threats, observations, etc. Reminding them of the real reasons for safety practices can touch their hearts and change their actions.


  3. David Maxfield

    Craig, What a wonderful example! You’ll never know if your conversation that day–along with others–saved someone’s life, but you know you’re doing the right thing.

    The personal approach is so powerful, especially when people have drifted into complying for the wrong reasons–rules, threats, observations, etc. Reminding them of the real reasons for safety practices can touch their hearts and change their actions.


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